In the history of civilization, cities are a relatively recent development. Known for high architectural wonders and countless ways to entertain ourselves, cities are an impressive show of human achievement and the diversity of some of the biggest cities in the world ensure that all cities are unique in their own right.
A lot of the cities included on this list are situated near water such as big lakes or rivers which makes sense considering how important water is to so many aspects of life. Cities look completely different now than they did centuries ago when architecture was much smaller and the cities were less densely populated, but even a single decade can bring about numerous changes to neighborhoods as things just seem to move a bit faster in cities.
Many people who enjoy a slightly quicker pace of life thrive in cities that offer a higher number of virtually anything from shops, dining, entertainment, activities, events, and more. Since most cities typically have numerous transportation options, urban dwellers often don’t have much trouble getting around to various neighborhoods of the city which can vary greatly from each other depending on the size of the city.
In the list below, we take a look at some amazing aerial views of some of the world’s most well known and visually stunning cities that remind us of the marvel of human innovation.
The city of Chicago is situated along the coast of Lake Michigan, one of the five Great Lakes that together contain 21% of the world’s surface fresh water located in the mid-western area of the United States. The Chicago we see today is truly a testament to human innovation because the imposing architectural style of numerous high rise skyscrapers came about due to the infamous Chicago Fire of 1871. The raging, 24-hour fire wiped out over 17,000 buildings and 73 miles of street, but the disaster led to what has been coined “The Great Rebuilding.” The city literally rose from the ashes and was a pioneer in steel frame construction for commercial use which led to the rise of the modern skyscrapers we see today in multiple cities across the globe. (nationalgeographic)
The name “Rio de Janeiro” means “River of January” which was the name given to the area when the city was originally located on the bank of Guanabara Bay. After enduring many attempts at invasions, the city was moved to its current location on Castle Hill. Several valuable items like sugarcane, gold, and diamonds ensured that Rio de Janeiro’s population grew steadily over the centuries and once Brazil achieved independence in 1889, Rio de Janeiro was named the capital because the city had made several developments in rail and road infrastructure and was the busiest port in the country, known as the political, economical and cultural centre of Brazil. (riodejaneiro)
Shanghai means “City on the Sea” and is located on the Yangtze River where China’s main waterway ends into the Pacific Ocean. Prior to 1842, the bustling city we see today was just a small fishing village, but that quickly changed after the city was named a treaty port which led to numerous foreign influences shaping the Shanghai we see today. Although today the city is well known as an international business hub, at one point Shanghai was considered “The Paris of the East” because of its abundance and variety of delectable restaurants, modern architecture, art scene, and eclectic mixture of influences from Asia, Britain, France, and the United States. (nytimes)
London is located on the banks of the River Thames and is considered England’s financial centre and the seat of Government of the United Kingdom. London was originally named “Londinium” by the Romans who founded the busy port-side settlement. Like many cities on this list, London became the impressive city it is today because of its location near the water and in the fourteenth century became a European hub for the distribution of goods. In the mid-1600s there was a fire that burnt down most of the city. 10 years of reconstruction led to architectural masterpieces such as palaces, halls, theatres, societies, museums that spurred the growth of the city we know today. (londoncitybreak)
Located on the southeastern tip of the United States in the state of Florida, the city of Miami is located at the mouth of the Miami River and is well known as a major transportation and business hub along with being home to numerous world class resorts. The city has survived various major hurricanes throughout its history but the building of numerous luxury hotels and resorts has consistently drawn tourists from all over the world to enjoy the beautiful sprawling beaches, the Art Deco-style buildings, and the city’s diverse cuisine created by the large Cuban and Haitian populations. (britannica)
Roman influences are evident in many places in the world to this day which is a testament to how far reaching and powerful the empire was back in ancient times. Today, the capital city of Italy is home to almost 3 million residents and is often considered the capital of two different countries because it is also home to the smallest country in the world, Vatican City. Because of its influence on so many different parts of the world for centuries, it has also been called the “Capital City of the World”- quite an impressive feat for any city. (rome.info)
Paris, France is a city that has a very exciting history due to the many revolutions, plagues, and large scale movements that has rocked the city over several centuries. Amidst all that chaos, in the mid 19th century, the Industrial Revolution took hold of the city and changed it profoundly, with drastic changes coming in the mid 1800s as most of the city was torn down and rebuilt. Finally, in the late 19th century, the Paris that we know today began to take shape as the world famous Eiffel Tower was built along with the Metro, the largest public transportation system in the city. (localhistories)
Cape Town has a very long history of human inhabitants and because of its location, became a very important spot where sailors would rest and stock up on supplies after being out on the sea for months. Today Cape Town goes by many nicknames such as “The Mother City” and “Tavern of the Seas” and is the legislative capital of South Africa. The city has a two century old tradition that might startle tourists who happen to be in the area at noon. At precisely midday, an old cannon at the top of Signal Hill is fired off to commemorate the original cannon being fired to dictate the movement of wares on the harbors. (cape-town.info)
Before European settlers bought the land of island of Manhattan in the early 1600s, the area between the Delaware and Hudson Rivers was inhabited by the original native New Yorkers, the Algonquin people. By 1760, the city surpassed Boston as the second largest city in the American colonies and by 1810 became the largest city in the Western Hemisphere with just over 200,000 people living there. During the 1760s-70s, New York was a center of rebellion against the British and the same fiery attitudes that made it a city of rebels is still evident in the over 8 million residents currently living in the city’s five boroughs. (history)
The current city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands is known today for being very tolerant towards people of different backgrounds. Similar to many other big cities, Amsterdam originally started as a small fishing village because of its location around a dam in the Amstel River The city has gone through a lot of very successful periods such as the “Golden Age” during 1585-1672 where many of the most important historic buildings that still stand today being built in this period such as the town hall and many canal houses. Amsterdam has long been considered the financial centre of Europe the Industrial Revolution helped the city gain wealth and expand. (amsterdam.info)
The urban population of Queenstown in New Zealand is almost 16,000 permanent residents and it is known as a resort town because of its focus on tourism. The town sits along Queenstown Bay on Lake Wakatipu and when it was first settled by Māori, was primarily used for fishing as there are historical artifacts that provide evidence of settlement there. Today, Queensland is a town that is world famous for snow sports although the town does not have a permanent snow cover during the year but does endure cold winters with a lot of heavy snowfall that covers four main mountains popular for snow sports. (nzhistory.govt)
The city of Barcelona was first founded by the Romans and was originally behind a defensive wall, some of which can still be seen in the old town. During the 13th and 15th centuries, Barcelona became known as the economic and political centre of the Western Mediterranean and there are several examples of the luxury enjoyed by residents of that time in the city’s Gothic Square which hosts several historical buildings. Much of the impressive and distinct world famous architecture that we see in the city today was built in the 20th century and features modernista buildings made in the Catalan art-nouveau style. (barcelonaturisme)
The city of Havana on the island of Cuba serves as many things to the country, the capital, a major port, one of Cuba’s 15 provinces, and a leading commercial centre. Although Cuba has many sheltered harbors, Havana’s harbor on the north coast of the Island was the most prized because of its easily defensible geography with land on both sides. In colonial times, Havana became one of the first places that the Spanish made landfall on their way to the New World which quickly made the city a cosmopolitan centre and currently has one of the great treasuries of historic colonial preserves in the Western Hemisphere. (britannica)
Sydney’s original inhabitants predate European settlers by at least 50,000 years. There is evidence that the original people there hunted, gathered, and fished in the area because of the lush woods and protected harbor. Traditional art can be found on rock faces and shell middens have been found in different areas. When Europeans did come in the late 1770s, they first settled on the eastern side and the intention was not to build the great city that Sydney is today, but rather to build a prison settlement for British convicts. By the mid 1800s, the transport of British convicts had ended and there were several schools, churches, markets and more that helped to establish the former penal infrastructure into one of the largest cities in the western world at the end of the 19th century. (cityofsydney.nsw)
The city of Stockholm is built upon many different islands sits at intersection of Salt Bay and Lake Mälar. It is the capital and the largest city in the country of Sweden and because of its location on the water, was once called the “city of the bridges”. Due to a large fire in the 18th century, most of the city’s wooden structures were replaced by stone buildings. This led to the city becoming the country’s cultural centre. When the 19th century hit, industrialization introduced municipally organized cleaning and sanitation which resulted in a large increase in population that further established Stockholm as the well known city it is today. (britannica)
The city of Dubrovnik comes from words meaning oak and wood which is understandable since the original settlement was by an oak forest. It faces the Adriatic Sea and is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Mediterranean Sea. The city lies at a crossroads of many different cultures and traded extensively along the Adriatic Sea in earlier centuries, establishing it as one of the busiest ports in the waters at that time. Because of its well preserved historic buildings, the entire city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. In the early 1990s, the city and the historical buildings were attacked, but reconstruction efforts ensured that the city once again regained its beauty. (visitcroatia.co)
Ciudad Mitad del Mundo means “city of the equator because it runs through the city. Located near the larger city of Quito in Ecuador, it has made a name for itself by promoting their unique location on this globe. The city is more so a village that is dedicated almost completely to the fact that they are located on the equator and have several monuments of varying sizes that lead to the city center as well as a museum. Visitors who stand at a certain point in Ciudad Mitad del Mundo can truthfully say that they are in two places at once - the southern and northern hemisphere. (ecuador)
Vancouver lies on the southwestern side of the province of British Columbia and boasts a strong natural harbour that faces both the sea and mountains on the Burrard Inlet and the Fraser River. The region was inhabited for many years by First Nations peoples before a trading post was placed near the mouth of the Fraser River in the early 1800s and by later that century became a small sawmilling settlement originally named Granville. When the city was incorporated as an official city in 1886, a fire that wiped out the small settlement in just under an hour. Much like a few other cities on this list, that fire proved to be the spark that forced the city to make improvements in their infrastructure and become the well known cities they are today. (britannica)
Riga is a city and the capital of the country Latvia which lies on the Baltic sea. Riga sits across both banks of the Daugava River which caused it to emerge as a profitable trading post in the late 12th century because the Daugava River was once a major trade route to the east and south. Riga has gone through a lot of different foreign rulers throughout the century which accounts for the wealth of cultural diversity and its place as a haven for Enlightenment thought with very well known philosophical works such as Kant, Rousseau and more being printed and translated right within the city. (britannica)
The city of Buenos Aires may be one of the only cities in the world that was founded twice. Once in 1536 by a Spanish expedition who settled there but were run off until a new expedition was sent back 50 years later to found the settlement again with a different name. Although the city was in a good location to become a relatively successful port, rigid rule restricted trade and its isolated location meant that people developed their own way of life. Rather than depending on trading by sea, they retreated more into the mountains to set up communities that were dedicated to mining and along the fertile land of the Paraná River. (britannica)
Kiev, also more recently becoming known as Kyiv, is the capital and the largest city in northern Ukraine, sitting on the Dnieper River. The city became a successful trading post in the fifth or sixth century and endured highs and lows along with progress in the late 19th century Industrial Revolution, but damage during WWII. Kiev has been considered important to Eastern European heritage and has been recognized by UNESCO for its “spiritual and intellectual influence”. Several of its historical and well preserved religious buildings have been placed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1990. (newworldencyclopedia)
Hong Kong, whose name means “fragrant harbour”, is located on the east of the Pearl River and is considered a special administrative region of the country. The area itself is made up of more than 230 large and small offshore islands, including Hong Kong Island, as well as the mainland area that lies to the north. The area has expanded to claim more land from the surrounding China Sea. This expansion led to the integration of labour and available resources of the land and was a primary reason that Hong Kong grew to be one of the world’s major trade and financial centres. (britannica)
Originally established by the well known Julius Caesar as a settlement for his veteran soldiers, Florence quickly became an important commercial center because of its prime location between the main route of Rome and the North as well as the fertile valley it was situated in. Stunning and world famous works of art have emerged from the city of Florence because those with power were patrons of the arts and commissioned many city works from Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli. Florence has gone through many changes in rulers as well as status in Rome as it was once considered the country’s capital for six years. (newworldencyclopedia)
Bangkok is a very well known cosmopolitan city in the country of Thailand because the rest of the country is primarily made up of small villages and towns. The city is located on the Chao Phraya River and the east and west bank used to be divided into two municipalities connected by several bridges. The city centre was once enclosed by a wall but fast population growth resulted in city boundaries stretching into the surrounding agricultural areas. Districts have developed as the city has expanded and the inner city is known for more institutional and commercial purposes while the outer city is more residential and industrial. (britannica)
Taipei is situated at the northern tip of the island of Taiwan on the Tan-shui River and is considered the seat of government of the country and the political, economic, and cultural centre of the island. Founded by Chinese immigrants in the early 18th century, by the 19th century it became an important centre for overseas trade because of its ports of Chi-lung and Tan-shui. Taiwan went through a lot of changes in status as it was first an administrative entity, then a provincial capital. By the mid-1900s, the city began to demolish low wooden buildings and replacing them with high rise apartments and office buildings with The Taipei Financial Building holding the title of world’s tallest building from 2003-2007. (britannica)