The best cities in the world to visit for food, art, romance, shopping, nightlife and wine

If you're an avid traveller, chances are you've been challenged to name your favourite city. It's a question that makes my soul shrivel like a snail under salt. Why should any single city be my favourite? I like Stockholm for its frigid beauty, Ho Chi Minh City for its street food, Istanbul for its mind-boggling layers of history. You can't compare New York to Nice, or London to Ljubljana. Besides, you can be fond of cities for no proper reason. I smile when I think of Zurich just because the airport transit train features sounds of mooing cows and alpine horns.

I was in Berlin a few weeks ago, and that's my current favourite city. It isn't beautiful but it has the heady pulse of a place in the throes of transformation. It's boozy, friendly, graffiti-scribbled, edgy. Tattooed young folk take over bridges at night, sitting on the tarmac with beers and guitars and idealistic enthusiasms. I also like Berlin for its outrageous nightlife, sausage stands and alternative neighbourhoods.

You may conclude that sedate Singapore or law-abiding Geneva would be my least favourite cities, but you'd be wrong. There are cities for certain moods and occasions, and every city has its highs and lows. There are cities best for being frisky or thoughtful, lazy or active, arty or sporty. Here's why I like these 11 top cities so much. For now, anyway. The best thing about favourites is that they should never stay the same.

THE CITY FOR ... ROMANCE

THE CONTENDERS

Paris, Rome, Venice, Hangzhou, Charleston

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Prague, for its dreamy viewpoints, lovely walks, frivolous baroque architecture, outrageous canoodling on the metro and fairy-tale arrangement of cobbles and castle. Perfect for a kiss or question popping.

Prague, Czech Republic - October 2 2016: A couple walks toward the riverbank and Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic on an overcast Autumn day SunAug19covercities?- A city for every occasion - Brian Johnston CREDIT: Shuttestock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

WHAT TO DO

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Stare Mesto, the mostly medieval old town, invites hand-in-hand strolling through crooked streets where restaurants serve honey cakes and shops tempt with Bohemian crystal and garnet jewellery. Charles Bridge across the Vltava River is most romantic at dawn, sans crowds and with its saints silhouetted against the emerging light. Then head up the hill of baroque Mala Strana and onto the castle's terraced gardens for lovely views. Petrin Hill's rose gardens are also seductive.

DON'T MISS

Visit St Agnes Convent (see ngprague.cz) for medieval art, the National Gallery (see ngprague.cz) for surrealist Czech challenges. Karlstejn Castle (see hrad-karlstejn.cz) is worth the 30-minute train ride.

ESSENTIALS

Visit in spring, when blossoms add further romance. See prague.eu

See also: Why you should visit Prague - a guide

THE CITY FOR ... ANNIVERSARIES

THE CONTENDERS

Esfahan, Buenos Aires, Jaipur, Istanbul, Kyoto

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Dreamy couple dressed in white closes walks around African city Marrakesh in a sunny evening SunAug19covercities?- A city for every occasion - Brian Johnston CREDIT: Shuttestock Cover option

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Marrakesh. You need not just romance but a memorable, exotic, exciting destination for an anniversary – especially if you've moved beyond rose petals and lingering afternoons in hotel rooms.

WHAT TO DO

This fashionable and yet still distinctively Moroccan destination for international jetsetters has all the trappings you need for that special occasion: an innovative dining scene, humming nightlife, luxurious treatments in hammams, cafes tempting with oozing pastries, traditional-style courtyard hotels such as Villa des Orangers (see villadesorangers.com) and a souk in which to get lost. Yves St Laurent's Jardin Majorelle (see museeyslmarrakech.com) is a magical collision of cactus and colour.

DON'T MISS

Plunge into the bustling old town and linger on at evening-lively Jemaa el-Fna square for food stalls and street entertainment. Cultural attractions include Islamic school Ben Youssef Medersa ( see medersa-ben-youssef.com) and Bahia Palace (see palais-bahia.com)

ESSENTIALS

Visit in balmy shoulder-season, spring or autumn. See visitmarrakech.com

See also: Why you should visit Marrakesh - a guide

THE CITY FOR ... ART

THE CONTENDERS

St Petersburg, New York, Paris, Berlin, Mexico City

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Vienna State Opera at night, Vienna, Austria. SunAug19covercities?- A city for every occasion - Brian Johnston CREDIT: Shuttestock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Vienna, which has an entire Museums Quarter and some of Europe's best art galleries, a fabulous musical and architectural heritage, and astonishing design hotels such as Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom​ (see sofitel.com).

WHAT TO DO

Visit Hofburg (see hofburg-wien.at) and Schonbrunn (see schoenbrunn.at) palaces. A highlight of the Museum of Art History (see khm.at) is its chamber of curiosities, a treasure-trove of bejewelled Hapsburg exotica. Superb walk-through displays at Haus der Musik (see hausdermusik.com) highlight the lives of Vienna's great composers, and while you're there you can conduct an interactive Vienna Philharmonic. At Augarten Porcelain Manufactory (see augarten.com), three centuries of porcelain prowess are seen in action on a behind-the-scenes tour.

DON'T MISS

Vienna's composers' homes and many other art museums and cultural attractions. Take in the Vienna Boys Choir (see wsk.at), Spanish Riding School (see srs.at) and a night at the State Opera (see wiener-staatsoper.at), too.

ESSENTIALS

Visit April-May or September-October. See wien.info

See also: The 20 must-do highlights of Vienna

THE CITY FOR ... NIGHTLIFE

THE CONTENDERS

Las Vegas, Bangkok, Montreal, New York, Hamburg

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Panoramic view of young people partying in an open-air outdoor club at famous Flutgraben water canal on a beautiful warm summer night with moving clouds in Berlin Kreuzberg, Germany SunAug19covercities?- A city for every occasion - Brian Johnston CREDIT: Shuttestock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Berlin, because it has cabaret and burlesque bars, avant-garde theatre shows, beer gardens, a lively techno scene and throbbing dance floors. You can party 24 hours a day, and in any way.

WHAT TO DO

Friedrichshain, Prenzlauerberg and Kreuzberg are the happening nightlife districts, plus Nollendorfplatz and Motzstrasse for gay life. Big mainstream nightclubs include uber-exclusive, techno-spot Berghain (see berghain.de), Tresor (see tresorberlin.de) in an old power plant and House of Weekend (see houseofweekend.berlin), but you'll also find scenes so alternative – kinky leather, naked ballet, fetish houses – they boggle the mind.

DON'T MISS

If you can get out of bed the morning after, visit the royal palaces at Charlottenburg and Potsdam (see spsg.de) and the outstanding museums of Museum Island (see smb.museum) – Altes Museum has astonishing Greek and Roman artefacts.

ESSENTIALS

May is the top month weatherwise, but any time is great for nightlife. See visitberlin.de

THE CITY FOR ... THE ACTIVE

THE CONTENDERS

Innsbruck, Copenhagen, Washington DC, Rio de Janeiro, Minneapolis

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Quay of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada SunAug19covercities?- A city for every occasion - Brian Johnston CREDIT: Shutterstock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Vancouver, whose setting between ocean and mountains and multiple parks and promenades demand to be walked, jogged, cycled and kayaked. You can even ski or snowshoe in suburban Grouse Mountain (see grousemountain.com).

WHAT TO DO

Walk or pedal the 28-kilometre Seaside Greenway, or concentrate on the section around scenic Stanley Park (see vancouver.ca). Kitsilano Beach has chilly water and a heated, saltwater swimming pool, or settle for beach volleyball and sunset watching. Kayak (see ecomarine.com) in downtown False Creek, where you might see seals, and cycle (see cyclevancouver.com) past Jericho Beach to the University of British Columbia.

DON'T MISS

Explore the buzzing food scenes of Gastown and adjacent Railtown and Chinatown, currently Vancouver's most on-trend districts. The university has great botanic and Japanese gardens (see botanicalgarden.ubc.ca) and a Museum of Anthropology (see moa.ubc.ca) with fabulous totem poles.

ESSENTIALS

Visit between April and October unless skiing. See tourismvancouver.com

THE CITY FOR ... FOOD

THE CONTENDERS

Bologna, Lyon, New Orleans, Bangkok, Singapore

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Osaka, Japan-November 21, 2017 : Tourist walking in night shopping street at Dotonbori, Dotonbori the famous destination for traveller in Osaka City, Osaka, Japan. SunAug19covercities?- A city for every occasion - Brian Johnston CREDIT: Shutterstock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Osaka, whose fantastic food scene is hugely competitive on quality and price, and ranges from rarified restaurants to astonishing department-store food halls and even vending machines offering hot dogs.

WHAT TO DO

Osaka's Michelin-starred restaurants such as Kashiwaya (see relaischateaux.com) are the place to try kaiseki cuisine, in which multiple courses of elaborately arranged food are served by kimono-clad hostesses in tatami rooms. For less formal meals, head to kappo restaurants and watch chefs at work, or to noodle bars or pub-like yakatori (charcoal chicken) joints. Osaka's ubiquitous street food includes stuffed omelette-like pancakes (okonomiyaki) and fried octopus balls (takoyaki).

DON'T MISS

Soak up the urban vibe and investigate shopping and nightlife. Osaka Castle (see osakacastle.net) showcases shogun life and is surrounded by cherry trees. The Museum of Oriental Ceramics (see moco.or.jp) is excellent. Kids will enjoy Universal Studios Japan (see usj.co.jp) and Osaka Aquarium (see kaiyukan.com). See osaka-info.jp

THE CITY FOR ... BEACHES

THE CONTENDERS

Cape Town, Sydney, Miami, Honolulu, Tel Aviv

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil SunAug19covercities?- A city for every occasion - Brian Johnston CREDIT: Shutterstock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Rio de Janeiro, because the sand and surf are magnificent along 40 kilometres of coast and the weather is great. And because nobody wears budgie-smugglers or string bikinis with the confidence of Brazilians.

WHAT TO DO

Adjacent beachside suburbs Copacabana and more upmarket Ipanema, both made famous in song, are the places to be. (Arpoador is best for surfers.) Stroll the wave-patterned promenades, frolic on the sands and plunge into the Atlantic Ocean. Ipamema's uber-chic Hotel Fasano (see fasano.com.br) is the place to stay among fashionistas in designer sunnies.

DON'T MISS

Ascend both Sugarloaf Mountain (see bondinho.com.br) and Corcovado (see tremdocorcovado.rio), with its Jesus statue, to appreciate the full beauty of Rio's beach setting from on high. The city centre has colonial-era architecture. Rio Art Museum (see museudeartedorio.org.br) and Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum (see culturaniteroi.com.br) provide cultural variety.

ESSENTIALS

Visit December-March for beach weather. February is Carnival season. See rcvb.com.br

THE CITY FOR ... SHOPPING

THE CONTENDERS

Milan, New York, London, Dubai, Paris, Tokyo

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR -November 08, 2014: Busy street market at Fa Yuen Street at Mong Kok area of Kowloon, Hong Kong. SunAug19covercities?- A city for every occasion - Brian Johnston CREDIT: Shutterstock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Hong Kong, because no other city has quite the same combination of ultra-luxury shopping, bespoke tailoring, shopping malls and rock-bottom rummaging in street markets.

WHAT TO DO

Li Yuen Streets in Central offer designer knock-offs, leather goods and accessories. Central must have the world's most glamorous Oxfam Shop (see oxfam.org.hk), full of second-hand designer labels. Causeway Bay features department stores and factory outlets. Kowloon's street markets include Ladies' Market and Temple Street Market for clothes, electric goods and household items, but check out the goldfish and bird markets, too.

DON'T MISS

The Peak (thepeak.com.hk) train and cross-harbour Star Ferry flaunt harbour cityscapes. Man Mo Temple on antique-shop strip Hollywood Road is Hong Kong's oldest temple. The giant Buddha at ornate Po Lin Monastery (see plm.org.hk) is an antidote to consumerism.

ESSENTIALS

October-December has the best weather, but December-February is best for sales. See discoverhongkong.com

THE CITY FOR ... WINE

THE CONTENDERS

Mendoza, Bordeaux, Reims, Napa, Porto

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Stellenbosch is a town in the Western Cape province of South Africa, situated about 50 kilometres (31 miles) east of Cape Town, along the banks of the Eerste River at the foot of the Stellenbosch SunAug19covercities?- A city for every occasion - Brian Johnston CREDIT: Shutterstock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Cape Town, because no other city has as many nearby vineyards set amid such stunning landscapes. Many cellar doors have great restaurants and wonderful gardens and are housed in Dutch gabled houses.

WHAT TO DO

The Dutch colony's first governor pioneered the wine industry in 1685 at Groot Constantia (see grootconstantia.co.za) in Cape Town's suburbs, now a national monument. Klein Constantia (see kleinconstantia.com) is similarly old. The spa at Steenberg Wine Estate (see steenbergfarm.com) offers vine-therapy treatments and grapeseed massage oils. Then head out to Stellenbosch (see wineroute.co.za) and Franschhoek (see franschhoek.org.za) a 50-kilometre drive east for more great wines, food and gobsmacking scenery.

DON'T MISS

Explore downtown's colonial-era buildings and the colourful Moslem district of Bo-Kaap. Hang out on Victoria & Albert Waterfront (see waterfront.co.za) and ascend Table Mountain (see tablemountain.net) to admire Cape Town's superlative natural setting.

ESSENTIALS

Wine festivals fall in February-March, which is also the dry season. See capetown.travel

THE CITY FOR ... SPORTS

THE CONTENDERS

New York, Melbourne, Manchester, Chennai, Munich

AND THE WINNER IS ...

BOSTON - OCTOBER 16: Elevated view of Gillette Stadium home of Super Bowl champs, New England Patriots on October 16, 2011 in Foxborough, Boston, MA SunAug19covercities?- A city for every occasion - Brian Johnston CREDIT: Shutterstock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Boston, which invariably makes top-10 lists for best cities in the USA to see not just Major League baseball but basketball, American football, soccer, ice hockey and lacrosse, too.

WHAT TO DO

Boston is home to the Red Sox baseball team (see mlb.com/redsox) which can be seen in action at Fenway Park stadium, accompanied by all-American razzmatazz, star-spangled banners and hotdogs. Gillette Stadium (pictured) is home to the New England Patriots (see patriots.com),who boast a record 10 Super Bowl appearances. The Boston Celtics (see nba.com/celtics) play at TD Garden. If you'd rather run than watch, there's always the Boston Marathon (see baa.org).

DON'T MISS

The Freedom Trail (see thefreedomtrail.org) explains Boston's important role in American independence. Then explore attractive, easily-walked North End and Beacon Hill neighbourhoods and the Charles River. The city has good dining, shopping and nightlife.

ESSENTIALS

Summer is baseball season, autumn has mild weather and autumn foliage. See bostonusa.com

THE CITY FOR ...THE SPIRITUAL

THE CONTENDERS

Varanasi, Kyoto, Rome, Mecca, Kandy

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Western Wall at the Dome Of The Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Israel SunAug19covercities?- A city for every occasion - Brian Johnston CREDIT: Shutterstock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Jerusalem, because the ancient city is central to three great monotheistic religions and encapsulates the greatest of spiritual aspirations – and the worst of our ability to follow them.

WHAT TO DO

Temple Mount is the most religiously charged smidgen of land on Earth, containing the Western Wall (pictured, the only surviving part of the Jewish Second Temple), Al-Aqsa Mosque (one of Islam's holiest sites), Dome of the Rock (a Muslim shrine) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site where Jesus was crucified. The Via Dolorosa links some of Christianity's most significant sites. The religious devotions of visitors can sometimes be kitschy, but equally rather moving.

DON'T MISS

Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial (see yadvashem.org) is confronting but necessary. The Israel Museum (see imj.org.il) houses ancient artefacts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

ESSENTIALS

Visit in spring or autumn. Avoid major Jewish holidays. See itraveljerusalem.com or visitpalestine.ps

FIVE CITIES FOR ANY OCCASION

SINGAPORE

A renowned food scene, abundant family-friendly activities and attractions, a collision of cultures, beaches and golf courses, plus ample opportunities to get active make this the perfect destination for travellers who want a little of everything. See visitsingapore.com

MADRID

The Spanish capital ticks the culture boxes with palaces and world-class art museums, yet also has some of Europe's most enjoyable nightlife, a great food scene and eclectic neighbourhoods. It's also a leading centre for fashion and design. See esmadrid.com

SAN DIEGO

Theme parks suit families, buzzing nightlife and dining scenes attract adults, and the active get surf and vast parks. Top museums cover contemporary art, photography and an aircraft carrier. The Californian weather is well-nigh perfect. See sandiego.org

BUENOS AIRES

Fine architecture, dollops of history, excellent shopping and street markets, funky bars and on-trend restaurants plus the combined passions of tango and soccer make for varied pleasures in the Argentine capital. See turismo.buenosaires.gob.ar

BRISBANE

The fast-growing, multicultural and increasingly confident Queensland capital deserves more kudos than it gets for its beautiful riverside setting, seemingly eternally sunny weather and a sophisticated arts and dining scene. See visitbrisbane.com.au

WHEN NOT TO VISIT THESE TOP CITIES

PARIS

August is awful in Paris. Parisians flee the capital for their annual holidays, many smaller shops and restaurants are closed and the city centre feels even less local than ever. The tourist queues are still just as long, though. March and November are a gamble with the weather, which can be unpleasant. See parisinfo.com

HONG KONG

The months between June and September cop the worst of the wet season, with 80 per cent of annual rainfall, and yet tourists from mainland China keep coming, so hotel rates hold steady. If you're averse to heat, humidity and the occasional typhoon then choose another time. See discoverhongkong.com

NEW YORK

With the Christmas decorations removed and the deep freeze turned to maximum, New York isn't comfortable in January and February – though low hotel rates compensate. A week-long February school midwinter break sees an invasion of kids in family-friendly venues. Days are short, streets perpetually in shade. See nycgo.com

LONDON

There's not much happening in February and March in the British capital and, although rainfall is fairly steady across the year, it feels particularly chilly and damp. The city's parks, among its biggest assets, are dismal before the arrival of spring. Days are still short and there's no chance of outdoor dining. See visitlondon.com

BEIJING

July and August are peak months for tourists but the worst time to visit. Temperatures and humidity soar, and rainfall is by far at its highest. Hotel rates are up, too, higher in these two months than any other time bar September. Avoid Golden Week in February and October, too, when crowds are mindboggling. See visitbeijing.com.cn

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