The world's 10 greatest city squares

A truly great city square sets the hairs on your back going the moment you enter it. For centuries, these plazas and piazzas have been the focal point of the cities that built them, and a place to dazzle with architecture, decoration, sculptures and fountains. But the really good squares all do it slightly differently. There's more than one way to make a city square feel remarkable, and these 10 have used their tricks more effectively than most.

GRAND PLACE

WHERE? BRUSSELS, BELGIUM

Every August, a carpet of flowers is installed in Grand Place. But you really don't need to wait until August to be thoroughly wowed. Grand Place is the epicentre of Brussels, surrounded by guild houses that are covered in lavish detail. Most are baroque, but the Gothic Town Hall stands out with its spindly 96-metre tower.  See visit.brussels

PIAZZA DEL CAMPO

WHERE? SIENA, ITALY

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By no means the biggest square on this list, Piazza del Campo's beauty comes from its medieval look and the surrounding red brick buildings. The soaring tower of the Palazzo Pubblico adds a focal point. Twice a year, however, the Piazza del Campo plays host to the Palio – one of the world's most extraordinary sporting events. Horses representing the city districts are raced around the square, bareback, with the Piazza del Campo awash in the colours of the competing districts. See comuni.siena.it

PIAZZA SAN MARCO

WHERE? VENICE, ITALY

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The most famous Italian city square, however, is probably Piazza San Marco in Venice. The subject of a gazillion paintings is where tourists come to be stung for outrageously expensive coffees. St Mark's Basilica dominates the eastern end, but it's arguably the hundreds of arched windows in the Procuratie Vecchie and Procuratie Nuove that give the structure and grandeur. See veneziaunica.it

SANTA FE PLAZA

WHERE? SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO

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American city squares tend to be ugly, flashing abominations like Times Square in New York. But Santa Fe Plaza does it differently. Part of the appeal here is the market stalls, but the buildings surrounding the plaza are highly distinctive. Most are in the Spanish Pueblo or Territorial style, some are adobe. The whole thing looks like the set of a grand Indian settlement in a cowboy film. See santafe.org

PLAZA MAYOR

WHERE? SALAMANCA, SPAIN

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Famous and historic  Plaza Mayor in Salamanca on a sunny day with dramatic clouds, Castilla y Leon, Spain credit istock
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Virtually every Spanish city has got an absolute belter of a city square. But Salamanca's main square feels like a singular piece of art, rather than a collection of impressive buildings stuck together. Originally used for bullfighting, Plaza Mayor is surrounded by 18th century sandstone buildings, all seemingly keeping to the same school uniform. And the eyeline raises gracefully for the baroque town hall. See salamanca.es

RED SQUARE

WHERE? MOSCOW, RUSSIA

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If Plaza Mayor's wow factor comes in its uniform elegance, Red Square in Moscow is almost the complete opposite. This is all about a series of striking set pieces including Lenin's Mausoleum and the twin-towered State History Museum. The Kremlin's also here, but it's the multi-coloured onion domes of Saint Basil's Cathedral that win the monumental fight for attention.

PLAZA DE ARMAS

WHERE? CUSCO, PERU

Aerial view of the Cusco's main plaza with crowd of people watching the flag raising act. Touristic plaza named

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Many squares get their feeling of power from the tall, ornate, tightly packed buildings around them. Not Plaza de Armas. Here, there's a marvellous feeling of space, with grassy lawns and flower beds, and a grandstanding fountain featuring an Inca king. Elaborate cathedrals and churches around the edges add eye candy, but they're complemented by low-rise arcades. See peru.travel

JEMAA EL-FNA

WHERE? MARRAKESH, MOROCCO

Famous Djemaa El Fna Square in early evening light, Marrakech, Morocco with the Koutoubia Mosque, Northern Africa.Nikon D3x credit istock
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Jemaa el-Fna is in the heart of Marrakesh's bewildering, tight-packed Medina. Arriving at it feels like finding the treasure in the middle of a maze. It's not the architecture that's important here – it's the assault on the senses. Smoke rises from the food stalls, fresh orange juices are crushed and chancers try to charge you for a photo with their snake. See visitmorocco.com

RYNEK GŁÓWNY

WHERE? KRAKOW, POLAND

PF1E4H Krakow Old Town. View of St Mary's Basilica and the Main Square ( Rynek Glowny ) from a cafe in the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), Krakow, Poland credit Alamy
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PF1E4H Krakow Old Town. View of St Mary's Basilica and the Main Square ( Rynek Glowny ) from a cafe in the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), Krakow, Poland credit Alamy one time use for Traveller only FEE APPLIES Whitley - town squares Photo: Alamy

Most squares have the star attraction at the edges, flanked by other not-quite-as-impressive buildings. That's not the case in Krakow's main square, the biggest medieval town square in Europe. It is dominated by the giant Cloth Hall, which has stood since the 13th century, but is in mainly Renaissance style. If strutting around the enormous marketplace isn't enough for you, the Town Hall Tower is on one side, the Church of St Adalbert on the other. See poland.travel

FEDERATION SQUARE

WHERE? MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA

Tennis Fans watching the Australian Open Tennis at Federation Square.

Tennis fans watch the Australian Open Tennis at Federation Square. Photo: Rob Blackburn/Tourism Victoria

Not all city squares have to be historic, and there's still a love it or hate it factor about Federation Square. The angular, deconstructivist architecture is jarringly distinctive. But no-one can deny that it serves the function of a city square – this is unquestionably a place to meet, where there's plenty going on. And that goes for the events, such as watching the Australian Open tennis on deck chairs, as much as the cluster of museums around Federation Square. See fedsquare.com

Disclosure: David Whitley has been a guest of tourist boards in Brussels, Venice and Melbourne.

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