Magnificent meeting places: The world's top 10 best city squares

GROTE MARKT, MECHELEN, BELGIUM

The world's grandiose urban squares are attention-grabbers, but it's often more modest squares that provide greater relaxation and delight. The handsome historic town of Mechelen has a terrific example in its Great Market, flanked by a Gothic-fantasy town hall, impressive medieval tower and lopsided, gingerbread houses draped in petunias and topped by animal weathervanes. Few better places for a good Belgian beer in a historical setting. See visit.mechelen.be

PLAZA DE ARMAS, CUSCO, PERU

Cuzco,Peru - January 16, 2015: Plaza de armas in sunset with local people. It is a centre point of Cusco city, Cusco, Peru. Story by Ute Junker on high altitude cities
Credit: iStock
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Photo: iStock

The Incans had a huge gathering place here, and although the Spanish destroyed its temples and other buildings, the arcaded, colonial replacement has remained the focus of the city's festivals, religious processions and demonstrations. A squat, solid-looking church and cathedral form the backdrop, relieved by lovely flowerbeds and an ornate fountain. Illuminations and liveliness make this a fine place to relax in the evenings. See peru.travel

PIAZZA DEL CAMPO, SIENA, ITALY

This mostly late-Gothic piazza is famous for its Palio horse races but is also one of Italy's best-preserved medieval squares, though it's actually more shell-shaped. It's all the more striking for being hidden at the convergence of 11 narrow alleys. The soaring Torre del Mangia is one of its eye-catchers. Another is Fonte Gaia, an elaborately sculpted marble fountain decorated with saints, animals and angels. See terresiena.it

PLAZA DE LA CATEDRAL, HAVANA, CUBA

Colourful buildings make many squares pretty, but Havana's Cathedral Square manages beauty with its architectural harmony of warm, monochrome stone. It's anchored at one end by an ornate, 1727 Spanish-colonial cathedral and surrounded by the former baroque mansions of city colonial grandees, with wrought-iron balconies, cheerful-hued shutters and occasional stained glass. Evening spotlights make the facades glow golden as people chatter in cafes beneath. See cubatravel.cu

RYNEK GLOWNY, KRAKOW, POLAND

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Rynek Glowny in Krakow, Poland (credit Krakow Travel)

Main Square sits in the centre of old Krakow and is one of Europe's largest medieval squares, and a World Heritage site. Impressive buildings such as the Town Hall Tower, Cloth Hall and basilica create the sort of ensemble you'd expect of a Brothers Grimm illustration. Daffodil-yellow and orange buildings create a jauntiness matched by the square's irrepressible buzz of bar-hopping locals and tourists. See krakow.travel

IMAM SQUARE, ESFAHAN, IRAN

KY7YY2 Mosque Sheikh Lotf Allah on the Imam square in Esfahan, Iran str6-trav10squares

Photo: Alamy 

Very large public squares are seldom pretty, but this meeting place at the heart of Esfahan manages prettiness despite its size thanks to splashing fountains, ornamental trees, clip-clopping carriages and perambulating, well-dressed families. The surrounding architecture of 17th-century palace, covered bazaar and two sumptuous blue-tiled mosques is magnificent. The windows of Ali Qapu Palace have terrific outlooks over the whole stately ensemble. See isfahancht.ir

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PLAZA MAYOR, SALAMANCA, SPAIN

The glorious Plaza Mayor lies at the heart of one of Europe's oldest university towns and is often cited as Spain's most beautiful plaza in a country where there's plenty of competition. The mid-18th-century square's harmonious baroque architecture glows in yellow sandstone and is studded with medallions depicting famous Spanish monarchs and writers. Cafes and ice-cream shops under the arcades spill tables into the open air. See turismocastillayleon.com

HARVARD YARD, BOSTON, US

Though not exactly a public square – it's part of Harvard University – this "yard" is open to everyone and a must-visit for its leafiness, lawns and lively student atmosphere. It's also elegant, surrounded by the university's oldest buildings, including a library, church, offices, departmental buildings and freshmen's dormitories in a happy uniformity of elegant red brick. It's all surrounded in ornate iron fencing with 27 gates. See harvard.edu

PLACE DE LA BOURSE, BORDEAUX, FRANCE

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Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux, France (credit Bordeaux Tourism) 2

Designed in the mid-18th century as an example of new urban architecture beyond the confines of the medieval city walls, Stock-Exchange Square is the epitome of symmetrical, Louis XV elegance, from its neoclassical architecture and mansard rooflines to its fountain of bare-breasted nymphs. It opens onto riverside promenades and the wonderful, contemporary Water Mirror, a reflecting pool in which local kids love to wade. See bordeaux-tourisme.com

PLAZA DE MAYO, BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

First created by the Spanish in the 1580s and still overlooked by the colonial-era Cabildo (town hall) and the cathedral, this square later became the symbol of independent Argentina. Eva Perón (Evita) famously addressed crowds from the balcony of the pink presidential palace. Palm trees supply a surprisingly tropical feel. Locals stroll the pink paths between French-style formal flowerbeds, fountains and elaborate lampposts. See turismo.buenosaires.gob.ar

The writer has travelled as a guest of numerous tourism offices.

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