Most beautiful-looking cities: The cities that look amazing on arrival and departure

If you ever doubt that the journey is as important as the destination, that the surroundings are as important as the place, you only need to look out the window. Take in the scenery. Take in the approach to the place you're visiting. See how the landscape changes as you get closer, how water gives way to land, how mountains morph into valleys, how cities grow and grow and grow until skyscrapers crowd out the sunlight like a thick forest canopy.

This is what travel is about. Arrivals and departures; comings and goings. These are our bread and butter, the stuff travel dreams are made of. To arrive or to depart can sometimes feel like a means to an end, just a thing you have to do to get where you're going – however, these comings and goings can also be the highlights of the entire holiday.

Imagine seeing glittering Las Vegas laid out on the desert floor; dipping below the jagged mountaintops that surround Queenstown; or gazing in awe as La Paz just opens up at your feet.

Arriving by plane, by train, by car or by sea. These sights stir something deep inside you. They add to the excitement. They put a place into context, give it depth and meaning and wonder. Not all great cities are immediately beautiful, or achingly lovely when you leave. But the following certainly do qualify.

THE ARRIVAL

NEW YORK CITY, US

Think of the people who have shared this view, the countless migrants seeking a better life, the adventurers, the grifters, the desperate, the needy. Think of the cruise passengers of old, the pleasure-seekers, the hedonists, the rich and the famous. All have shared this view that's appearing over the horizon: New York City. There's nothing quite like it. The skyline so familiar. Each building so recognisable. It doesn't matter which port you're coming into, whether it's Manhattan or Brooklyn or New Jersey, the views of New York and the feeling of promise that the city brings are always the same. See nycgo.com

THE DEPARTURE

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TAORMINA, ITALY

If you've spent a time strolling the paved streets of Taormina, if you've paused at the lookout points on Corso Umberto, watched Mount Etna smoking away in the distance, seen the sparkle of the Mediterranean below, then you know what's in store. Start the car and pull onto the hairpin bends of the road leading down from this medieval hilltop town and the brilliance of Sicily reveals itself: the pebbled beach with the flawlessly clear water at Isola Bella; the rugged headland of Capo Taormina; the bustle and beachy vibes of Giardini Naxos. It's a shame everyone else on the road seems in such a hurry. See italia.it

THE ARRIVAL

QUEENSTOWN, NEW ZEALAND

Whatever you do, when you're flying into Queenstown get a window seat, because the approach to this alpine town is something truly special. It begins long before the plane even descends, as the snow-capped Southern Alps come into view, peak after peak rising to meet you. Soon the plane dips towards those summits, seeming to almost skim their surface as sparkling Lake Wakatipu comes into view, as you sink below the jagged ridgeline of the Remarkables, as houses appear below, as vineyards reveal themselves, as animals graze on perfect green pastures and a runway suddenly materialises. You're in paradise. See newzealand.com

THE DEPARTURE

TOKYO, JAPAN

It's almost impossible to wrap your head around the sheer size of Tokyo, even when you're there. When you're on the ground each suburb just feels like a village – it's so hard to put them all together, to picture the low-rise sprawl that houses almost 40 million people in a greater area that takes in Yokohama, Kawasaki and more. To appreciate the sheer mass of Tokyo you have to depart by train, you have to begin at Tokyo station and board a shinkansen, you have to watch out the window, amazed, as the train hits high speed and, yet still, Tokyo goes on and on, and on into the distance. See jnto.org.au

THE ARRIVAL

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA

El Alto is a mess. Perched high on the Bolivian altiplano, this settlement was once a spill-over of La Paz but these days has become the country's second-largest city in its own right. The traffic is horrendous. You move at a crawl and then your car reaches the lip of a valley and suddenly you're into La Paz; suddenly, this spectacular Andean city is spread out before you, clinging to the valley walls, snaking ever downwards in a tangle of busy roads and squat buildings, with the snow-capped Illimani volcano looming gloriously in the background. This is another world – and you're going to love it. See visitbolivia.org

THE DEPARTURE

VANCOUVER, CANADA

If you're flying south-west from Vancouver towards Australia, the views will be lovely, though slightly truncated. You'll spot the city itself, hugging the harbour. You'll see the Strait of Georgia and then cross Vancouver Island before hitting the ocean. If, however, you're flying north you'll get a real treat, as your plane traverses the rugged and ragged British Columbia coastline, all inlets and islands, coves and bays. The water sparkles, the hills shine and the cameras come out on both sides of the plane as passages try to capture the beauty. See canada.travel

THE ARRIVAL

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN

There are more than 24,000 islands in the Stockholm archipelago, and though you'll only spot a fraction from the ship's deck as you make your way into the city by sea, it will still be a seriously impressive sight. These lovely islands are often accentuated by the Swedes' dollhouse-like holiday homes dotting their shores, and by the locals themselves, who in the warmer months often share the water with you on small sailboats and leisure craft, making the most of this stunning area. Stockholm itself is wonderful, but it's all about the approach. See visitsweden.com

THE DEPARTURE

MURREN, SWITZERLAND

Murren is a small alpine village in the heart of Switzerland's Bernese Oberland, a settlement perched on a clifftop a kilometre above the valley floor. Words don't even go close to doing justice to the beauty of this area. It's all towering snowy peaks, green, flower-covered meadows, fairytale houses and eye-popping, sheer drops. The quickest way to depart Murren and get back to the valley floor is by cable car, a ride via the town of Gimmelwald that descends almost straight down, providing the most spectacular view of the surrounding area imaginable. See myswitzerland.com

THE ARRIVAL

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA

There's no mistaking Table Mountain. There's no way you would pick that distinctive shape for anything else: the pointed peaks on either side, the long flat surface in the centre, so often cloaked in cloud. When you approach Cape Town by road, you spot the mountain long before you spot the city. If you come in from the north or the east you can take a short detour to the suburb of Table View, from which that most famous of silhouettes is clearly visible. This is the end of a continent, the end of Africa. The mountain just gets more impressive the closer you get to it, until you're at its very foot. See southafrica.net

THE DEPARTURE

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY

As beautiful as the Hungarian capital is to view from the river by day, with the twin cities of Buda and Pest vying for your attention on either side of the Danube, it's even more impressive by night. Many river cruises depart after the sun has set, when Budapest's spectacular landmarks are so gloriously lit up: the sprawling, Gothic parliament building, its intricacies picked out by a thousand spotlights; towering Buda Castle, high on a hill; the riverside Varkert Bazaar, so impressive by night. You won't want to leave Budapest, but you'll be glad you did. See hellohungary.com

THE ARRIVAL

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND

Edinburgh's Waverley train station leaves you in doubt as to where you are, and what you've come here for. The approach might seem fairly pedestrian, rattling through Edinburgh's unremarkable suburbs. The terminal is similarly unimpressive, dropped as you are at an underground platform, unaware of your surroundings. But then you emerge into the daylight and there it is: to one side, Edinburgh Castle looming magnificently high above, the Royal Mile close by, the old city in all its glory. To the other side, new Edinburgh, Princes Street, George Street, stone buildings and parkland. This is Edinburgh. You've arrived. See visitbritain.org

THE ARRIVAL

ISTANBUL, TURKEY

In recent years, cruise ships had stopped going to Istanbul. Political uncertainty meant the port was too much of a risk. Passengers weren't interested. This year, however, ships have returned and what a good thing that is. Not only will passengers again be able to enjoy a richly historic city that straddles Europe and Asia, but they'll have the joy of arriving in Istanbul by sea, of approaching the Golden Horn and spotting the city's most famous sights: the minarets of the Blue Mosque, the domes of Hagia Sophia and the spires of Topkapi Palace. See visitturkey.in

THE DEPARTURE

DONEGAL, IRELAND

A poll of aircraft pilots conducted by private jet charter company PrivateFly revealed that Donegal was voted the most scenic airport in the world. Why? Because this is Ireland in all its loveliness, emerald-green pastures and white sand dunes, rivers and inlets marked by swirling sandbanks that look like they were applied with a painter's brush; rugged cliffs that fall away into stunning blue ocean. To depart Donegal is to bid a sad farewell to one of the friendliest places on the planet, but it's also to look forward to one of the world's great departures. See ireland.com

THE ARRIVAL

BILBAO, SPAIN

A brilliant view is all about the reveal. It's about building suspense, keeping viewers in the dark. The northern Spanish city of Bilbao does exactly that, literally. There's a long tunnel, the Artxanda-Salbe, that leads from the main highway encircling Bilbao down to the riverfront in the centre of town. You don't realise quite how close you are to the action until light pours into the tunnel and you shoot out the other side, to find yourself crossing Puente de la Salve, the famous green bridge, with the city's best-known landmark, the Guggenheim, right there on the riverbank. Spectacular. See tourism.euskadi.eus

THE DEPARTURE

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA

Few cities can offer a cruise terminal so centrally and beautifully located as Sydney. Circular Quay is one of the most important sights in the city, and you're right there. You're living it. And the best is still to come. To depart Circular Quay is to see Sydney at its best, to bid farewell to the coat-hanger Harbour Bridge and the sails of the Opera House and to watch as the harbourside mansions of Rose Bay and Vaucluse slip by, as Sydney Harbour National Park disappears, as yachts and ferries and motorboats bob along, as you pass Camp Cove and cruise out of the heads and hit the open ocean. Stunning. See australia.com

THE ARRIVAL

LAS VEGAS, US

It's best to do this trip around dusk, to go "over the hump" from Pahrump just as the sun is going down and the city lights are coming up. You escape Pahrump, a charmless casino town, via State Route 160, snaking out into the Nevada desert, climbing into the rocky hills past Mountain Springs. There the road twists and turns, eventually making its way to the summit, where an amazing sight greets you at the pass: Las Vegas, glittering like gold dust spilled on a bare floor, shimmering in the leftover heat haze, laid out in the flat desert below. The promise of Las Vegas, the chances, the dreams, the luck: all there before you. See lvcva.com

FIVE CITIES TO APPROACH ON FOOT

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, SPAIN

All trails lead to Santiago. Or at least, in Spain it seems that way. This is the destination for many a pilgrim, for those treading the Camino de Santiago, the network of ancient pathways that lead to the remains of St James. Those arriving in Santiago de Compostela have usually walked more than 600 or 700 kilometres for the pleasure. See oficinadelperegrino.com

FORT WILLIAM, SCOTLAND

Fort William is one of Scotland's premier outdoor destinations, a town on the rugged west coast that provides access to some of the best hiking and biking around, including the challenge of scaling Ben Nevis. It's also the finishing point for the Great Glen Way, a six-stage trek that begins 117km away in Inverness. Arriving here is victory and relief. See visitbritain.org

GRINDELWALD, SWITZERLAND

This is everything you want Switzerland to be: the towering mountains, the grassy foothills, the cows with bells, the alpine farmhouses, the clear highland air. Grindelwald is perfect, and it's also perfect for those who like a good walk. Take the train in any direction and make your way back on foot. See myswitzerland.com

LOS ANGELES, US

It seems unlikely you would want to roll up in Los Angeles on foot, but how about if you begin and end your journey in the same place? The Hollywood Hills is an iconic spot to hit the trails, and a quick walk through Griffith Park to the top of Mount Hollywood will provide amazing views of the city. See discoverlosangeles.com

HONG KONG

At first glance Hong Kong, in less fraught times, doesn't seem like a hiker's paradise; however, find your way to the beginning of the 8.5km Dragon Back Trail and you'll be surprised. This popular track enjoys panoramic views as it follows a long ridgeline and ends at a beach for a welcome post-hike swim. See discoverhongkong.com

WHERE THE COMING IS AS BAD AS THE GOING

CAIRO, EGYPT

Is that Cairo down there? Sometimes it can be hard to tell from the air, as dust swirls and pollution adds to the fug. Though Cairo plays host to some of the world's most famous ancient sights, it's not an attractive city, and your mode of transport won't make any difference to that. See egypt.travel

OSAKA, JAPAN

Osaka is spotlessly clean and perfectly lovely – it's just that it's nowhere near as scenic as neighbouring cities such as Kyoto, or the mountain village Koya-san. Osaka is just a city: no landmarks to recognise from the air, no famous skyline to see from the water, nothing remarkable from the road. See jnto.org.au

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA

Jozi isn't a pretty city. It doesn't have the landmarks of Cape Town or the beachfront of Durban. The nice buildings it does have are often hidden behind razor wire. Its urban sprawl isn't exactly inviting. Johannesburg, however, is in a state of flux, and is a fascinating city to visit. Just don't expect good looks. See southafrica.net

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL

Sao Paulo is doomed to be forever compared to its far sexier coastal cousin, Rio de Janeiro. Even without that contrast, however, you would still have to admit Sao Paulo is a spectacularly ugly sprawl, one that just seems to go on forever. The city is lively and fun, but not scenic. See visitbrasil.com

BERLIN, GERMANY

There's no Danube in Berlin. Instead you get the Spree, which doesn't exactly invite river-cruise fantasies. The city isn't much to look at from the air and it's a plain approach by car, too. Fortunately, what Berlin does have is history, culture and heart. Those things make up for a little shabbiness. See visitberlin.de

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