World's 20 best waterfront cities and their top attractions

The joy of waterfronts is the joy of water: healing, soothing, somehow satisfying in its eternal ebb and flow. It's the pleasure of wide-open vistas that contrast with the concrete canyons of our modern cities, not to mention the ease that a watery setting brings to trade and travel. 

No surprise that almost every city, wedded to the practicality of ports, is sited on a harbour, lake or river. Yet it's surprisingly rare to come across a city with a truly successful waterfront that works for tourists and residents alike.

Historically, most waterfronts have been a clutter of shipping terminals, warehouses and inner-city tenements. More recently, cities from Liverpool to Hong Kong, Darwin to Perth have spent a fortune redeveloping these tired districts with an aim to luxe living, recreation and entertainment, though with mixed results. 

See also: World's friendliest cities for tourists

There are cities, however, adept at showcasing the beauty of their watery setting while also establishing their waterfronts as vibrant, integrated urban destinations for culture, festivals, shopping, dining or relaxation. The most successful knit their waterfronts into the fabric of the city.

Chicago's 29-kilometre Lakefront Trail that runs between parkland and Lake Michigan is the city's playground.

San Sebastian in northern Spain has a gorgeous, arcing promenade connecting public spaces and making its coastline feel like part of the city centre. Stockholm – unlike Paris or Portland – has avoided festooning its waterfront with traffic-choked highways. It opens up the city to the sea with cycle-ways and paths that meander past waterfront public buildings.

No matter what, people will gravitate towards water like buttercups towards the light. But for the best burst of brilliance, here are 20 cities that have successfully captured the undefinable mojo of waterfronts.

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See also: world's best cities with the worst reputations

Granville Island, Vancouver, Canada

WHY VISIT This former industrial area underwent a hugely successful redevelopment and now sports shops, theatres, restaurants and artists' studios. Loiter among seagulls and buskers and plunder the excellent market for picnic goodies.

DON'T MISS Granville Island is crammed with the workshops of artists and artisans making everything from architectural models to sake and ceramics. Particularly interesting is the Gallery of BC Ceramics (bcpotters.com) and the Inuit sculptures and prints of Inukshuk Gallery (inukshukgallery.com).

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See also: Twenty reasons to visit Vancouver

Paris Plage, Paris, France

WHY VISIT The original and still the best "city beach" concept sees the Seine riverbanks transformed with sand, palm trees and deckchairs over summer, providing Paris with a buzzing, if temporary, riverfront district.

DON'T MISS Notre Dame (notredamedeparis.fr), the glowing Sainte Chapelle (sainte-chapelle.monuments-nationaux.fr) and gorgeous Arab World Institute (imarabe.org) are within a designer thong toss of the sand. A second Paris Plage spreads around Bassin de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement and has quayside restaurants and water sports.

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The Bund, Shanghai, China

WHY VISIT The Bund is lined with 1920s art deco and neoclassical buildings. In contrast, futuristic skyscrapers soar across the river. Promenades are a crowd of gawkers, tai-chi practitioners and retirees perfecting their dance moves.

DON'T MISS South Bund is the newly hip stretch of waterfront, with great informal eateries such as tapas joint El Willy (elwillygroup.com), steakhouse Char (char-thebund.com) and Michelin-starred Table No 1 (tableno-1.com). Goggle at the whole Bund from the observation deck of Oriental Pearl Tower (opg.cn) across the river.

MORE meet-in-shanghai.net

Southbank, London, UK

WHY VISIT Writers such as Dickens and Wordsworth and artists such as Turner have all been captivated by the city-centre stretch of the Thames, which condenses English culture and history and sports some of its most recognisable buildings. Southbank provides views over it all.

DON'T MISS The London Eye (londoneye.com) allows you to peer down on most London landmarks. Keep going in order to admire Millennium Bridge, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (shakespearesglobe.com) and the brilliant Tate Modern (tate.org.uk) for contemporary art.

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Viaduct Harbour, Auckland, New Zealand

WHY VISIT Fine hotels, sophisticated restaurants, bars and bistros humming with evening crowds and a waterfront afloat in sleek white yachts make this an exhilarating place to kick back in an otherwise drab city centre.

DON'T MISS Every kind of craft from Maori canoes to contemporary racing yachts is on show at the Maritime Museum (maritimemuseum.co.nz), but to experience the real thing an America's Cup Racing Experience (exploregroup.co.nz) will have you hauling sailings on the harbour.

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Quai Wilson, Geneva, Switzerland

WHY VISIT This promenade is part of five kilometres of quayside walks that lead from the Botanic Garden (ville-ge.ch) all the way to Parc des Eaux-Vives on the far lakeshore, with flowerbeds, yachts and alpine views all the way.

DON'T MISS You'll pass the History of Science Museum (ville-ge.ch/mhs/) and ornate pink neo-gothic Brunswick Monument. Across the bridge is Geneva's floral clock and 150-metre column of water, the Jet d'Eau. Parc La Grange's rose gardens, orangery and cedar-shaded lawns are a fitting finale.

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Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

WHY VISIT Live music, festivals, 80-odd eateries, hundreds of boutiques and a group of frolicking sea lions make this vibrant part of Cape Town attractive both for tourists and locals. It's also a working harbour where seafood is unloaded daily. Table Mountain looms in the background.

DON'T MISS The Springbok Experience Rugby Museum (sarugby.co.za) and Diamond Museum (capetowndiamondmuseum.org) cater to divergent interests. Ride the Cape Wheel (capewheel.co.za) for views and release your inner artists at Art Jamming (artjamming.co.za). 

MORE waterfront.co.za

Boat and Clarke Quays, Singapore

WHY VISIT Marina Bay is the latest waterfront redevelopment, but these quays provide a more intimate riverfront experience, meandering through the colonial heart of Singapore. Once positioned for trade, restored shophouses now provide abundant restaurant and bar choices.

DON'T MISS Sit at an outdoor table on Clarke Quay (clarkequay.com.sg) for satay sticks and cold beer as all Singapore perambulates past. Cross the river to the excellent Asian Civilisations Museum (acm.org.sg) for its collection of furniture, porcelain and fine arts.

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Embarcadero, San Francisco, US

WHY VISIT Avoid tourist-heaving Fisherman's Wharf and head around the shoreline to the piers of Embarcadero, with their windy outlooks to Alcatraz. There are few better places for a stroll, a skate or a cycle. The thrice-weekly, expansive Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is hipster heaven.

DON'T MISS Hands-on science museum Exploratorium (exploratorium.edu) delves into illusion, electricity, glowing jellyfish and more. Pier 39 (pier39.com) has an aquarium, mirror maze, harbour boat rides and an abundance of shops and restaurants.

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Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark

WHY VISIT The 300-year-old, village-like "New Harbour" of restored half-timber houses retains a raffish nautical air. Wooden sailboats bob in the water, while locals and tourists alike compete for tables at quayside bars.

DON'T MISS Nyhavn sits at the centre of revamped promenades leading to the minimalist Black Diamond library (kb.dk) in one direction and Amalienborg Palace (kongernessamling.dk/amalienborg/) and Little Mermaid in the other. Across the water, Copenhagen Opera House (kglteater.dk/en/) resembles an alien spaceship.

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The Waterfront, Darwin, Australia

WHY VISIT It may be too soon to say whether this new collection of hotels, restaurants, upmarket apartments and shady parkland is a great waterfront precinct, but it has certainly transformed the look and luxe of Darwin. 

DON'T MISS Stinger nets in the bay and a wave pool allow for a worry-free dip. Adrenaline seekers should try flyboarding (darwinflyboarding.com), and the parklands host regular tai-chi and zumba classes, art fairs, concerts and cultural events. The dry season's outdoor cinema (deckchaircinema.com) is a pleasure.  

MORE waterfront.nt.gov.au

Kamo River, Kyoto, Japan

WHY VISIT Most urban rivers in Japan have vanished under concrete, but Kyoto's Kamo is lined by walking paths and riverbanks where teenagers strum and canoodle. Locals cycle the towpaths and herons strut in the shallow water.

DON'T MISS The river is gorgeous on summer evenings, when its restaurant terraces are strung with lanterns, catch the breeze and provide dragonfly-humming river views. Try Hiro (yakiniku-hiro.com) for beef cooked at the table, or Tsuruse (tsuruse.co.jp) for grilled eel and fish.

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Inner Harbour, Baltimore, US

WHY VISIT Shops, sports venues, concert pavilions and museums: this waterfront packs in the attractions while remaining a working port and yachting hub afloat with ships and sailboats. Adjacent Little Italy is charming, Harbour East youthful and Fells Point jumps with nightlife.

DON'T MISS The first-class National Aquarium (aqua.org) features a spectacular Australian gorge, while hands-on Maryland Science Centre (mdsci.org) is a kids' favourite. Paintings, sculpture and mixed media at American Visionary Art Museum (avam.org) provide a refreshingly irreverent look at art.

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Cardiff Bay, Cardiff, UK

WHY VISIT This highly successful redevelopment project transformed Cardiff from gritty working-class town to the epitome of Cool Britannia. It turned the city towards the sea, superbly combined Victorian industrial and cutting-edge architecture, and created an Atlantic wharf line-up of hip bars and restaurants.

DON'T MISS The bronze-coloured Wales Millennium Centre (wmc.org.uk) is the highlight both for its fabulous architecture and performing arts program. The Dr Who Experience (doctorwho.tv/events/doctor-who-experience/) displays props and costumes from the TV show, produced in Cardiff.

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Market Square, Helsinki, Finland

WHY VISIT The square lies at the heart of Helsinki's cloud-scudded harbour. Stalls sell hand-knitted pullovers, reindeer skins and smoked herring. Adjacent Old Market Hall is a smorgasbord of Finnish nibbles such as cloudberries, salmon and cheeses.

DON'T MISS The meringue pile of Helsinki cathedral (helsinginkirkot.fi/en/churches/cathedral) is just inland. Follow park-lined Esplanadi to elegant cafes, Finnish designer shops Marimekko (marimekko.com) for brightly patterned clothes, and Artek (artek.fi) for lamps and laminated chairs. World Heritage, fortified Suomenlinna island (suomenlinna.fi) is just offshore.

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Corniche, Luxor, Egypt

WHY VISIT The Corniche knits together modern Luxor, its fabulous east-bank temples and – by way of ferries and outlooks – the brooding drama of ancient Thebes across the Nile. It also provides a mesmerising flow of hawkers, calash drivers and felucca touts.

DON'T MISS Atmospheric Luxor Temple and, at the Corniche's far end, the vast Karnak complex (sca-egypt.org), strewn with obelisks, statues and hieroglyphs. The fascinating waterfront Mummification Museum has the remains of birds, reptiles and ancient Egyptian officials.

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Aker Brygge, Oslo, Norway

WHY VISIT This transformed shipbuilding district's first incarnation became a popular destination for shopping, drinking and eating, and turned introspective Oslo more firmly towards its fjord. Further enhancements, including a wider pier and promenades, have just been completed.

DON'T MISS Walk around the foreshore to Akershus Fortress (forsvarsbygg.no), and take the ferry to the Bygdoy peninsula for several outstanding maritime museums, including Fram Museum (frammuseum.no) dedicated to polar exploration, Kon-Tiki Museum (kon-tiki.no) and Viking Ship Museum (khm.uio.no).

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West Lake, Hangzhou, China

WHY VISIT One of the world's most romantic lakeshore settings makes Hangzhou a favourite among Chinese honeymooners. Early morning mists drift through willow trees, lotus flowers unfurl and pagodas stand on dainty islands, a scroll painting come to life.

DON'T MISS Dine on local specialties such as shrimp and perch at 170-year-old lakeshore Louwailou Restaurant (louwailou.com.cn). Impression West Lake (hzyxxh.com) is a spectacular sound-and-light show on a partially submerged stage on Yue Lake; actors seem to float on water.

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Vieux Port, Marseilles, France

WHY VISIT France's oldest and second-largest city, once notorious as rundown and crime-ridden, redeveloped its docklands, opened museums and became the 2013 European Capital of Culture. Yet its Vieux Port retains a working-harbour atmosphere and down-at-heel, historic Mediterranean beauty.

DON'T MISS The new Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (mucem.org) and inelegantly named contemporary art museum FRAC PACA (fracpaca.org) are top notch. There are restaurants and bars in the  restored  19th-century buildings of up-and-coming La Joliette docks.

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Harbourfront, Toronto, Canada

WHY VISIT A former warehouse district on Lake Ontario, Harbourfront has enjoyed 20 years of urban renewal and vibrant cultural projects that have transformed it into a recreation zone where locals walk, cycle, eat, shop and attend summer jazz concerts and the light-draped Winterfest (waterfrontbia.com).

DON'T MISS Check out the speciality shops and eateries of Queen's Quay Terminal (qqterminal.com), contemporary art at The Power Plant (thepowerplant.org) and the delightful Toronto Music Garden (harbourfrontcentre.com), created in homage to Bach.

MORE seetorontonow.com

FIVE OF THE BESTWATERFRONT EATERIES

CLUB DEL DOGE, VENICE, ITALY

Decor like Casanova's boudoir, terrace right on the Grand Canal opposite a bulging basilica, Venetian gourmet delicacies: worth sacrificing your arm and a leg for a romantic dinner. clubdeldoge.com

M ON THE BUND, SHANGHAI, CHINA

Owned by an Aussie and headed by an Aussie chef, M provides a magnificent Bund location and views over the glittering drama of riverside Shanghai, especially from its outdoor terrace. m-restaurantgroup.com

RIVER CAFE, NEW YORK, US

Tucked under the Brooklyn Bridge, this restaurant tempts with classic American food and views over the Statue of Liberty and skyscraper-studded Manhattan skyline. therivercafe.com

BUVETTE DES BAINS, GENEVA, SWITZERLAND

This shabby-chic shack at the end of a lake jetty is the place for a bargain-priced dish of the day and views across Lake Geneva to a panorama of French Alps. buvettedesbains.ch

FORT DENISON, SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA

Can you get more waterfront than a petite island bang in the middle of the world's most beautiful harbour? Tuck into Mod Oz and gaze out at passing yachts and ferries.  fortdenison.com.au

FIVE OF THE BEST WATERFRONT BUILDINGS

GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM, BILBAO, SPAIN

One of the world's most fabulous and universally admired masterpieces of waterfront architecture features Frank Gehry's now signature random curves, covered in titanium.  guggenheim-bilbao.es

OPERA HOUSE, OSLO, NORWAY

Pitched courtyards in white granite and marble rise from the water like an iceberg: you can walk up sloping angles right onto the roof. Enjoy moody harbour views from the lobby. operaen.no

MUSEUM OF ISLAMIC ART, DOHA, QATAR

Looming on its own island off the Qatari capital's Corniche like a Babylonian ziggurat, this I.M. Pei-designed museum has Islamic ceiling patterns that make neck-stretching a must. mia.org.qa

ESPLANADE THEATRES ON THE BAY, SINGAPORE

Triangular glass panels with aluminium sunshades form two domes likened to armadillos, landed flies or durians. Best admired at night, when they glow golden. esplanade.com

CHONGQING GRAND THEATRE, CHONGQING, CHINA

At certain angles, especially when illuminated at night, the theatre resembles a ship sailing the Yangtze River. Angled, frosted-glass walls provide endless sun-and-cloud reflections. cqdjy.com.cn

FIVE OF THE BEST WATERFRONT HOTELS

INTERCONTINENTAL, HONG KONG, CHINA

Open your curtains for the full dazzling sweep of Central's neon-light skyscrapers, plus passing ferries and cruise ships, from Hong Kong's only absolute harbour-front hotel. intercontinental.com

FOUR SEASONS HOTEL ISTANBUL AT THE BOSPHORUS, TURKEY

A history-lined harbour and skyline topped by graceful minarets is on show from luxe guestrooms and gorgeous marble terraces, where al fresco meals are panoramic. fourseasons.com

PAN PACIFIC VANCOUVER HOTEL,  CANADA

Though buried inside a cruise terminal, the hotel wows with panoramic harbour and mountain views as you step into guestrooms – or onto the eighth floor's outdoor pool deck. panpacific.com

HOTEL SACHER SALZBURG, AUSTRIA

Stately luxe and service is matched by a location right on the Salznach River. Salzburg unfolds a gorgeous panorama of baroque cupolas and fortifications across the water. sacher.com

SOFITEL AUCKLAND VIADUCT HARBOUR, NEW ZEALAND

Some rooms provide outlooks onto yachts and scudding clouds, but it's the location that's unbeatable, right on Waitemata Harbour on Auckland's oh-so-trendy revamped waterfront. sofitel.com

See also: Lonely Planet Best in Travel 2016: top cities to visit
See also: The best destination in the world for a holiday right now

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