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Best Cities for Architecture Buffs

If you’re mesmerized by the fanciful colors and capricious lines of Art Nouveau, or you long to retreat into the past beneath Gothic cathedral ceilings or Roman arches, you’re an architecture buff at heart. You’re likely a traveler, too. Around the world, architecture old and new reflects more than just design trends — it’s a glimpse into history and into the lives of locals. In other words, architecture and travel go together like Grecian columns and Neoclassicism. What trip to any major city is complete without an examination of its best buildings?

We’ve put together a list of eight amazing cities that should be at the top of every architecture admirer’s must-visit list.

Barcelona, Spain

The city of Barcelona is a sprawling compendium of 2,000 years of European architectural styles — impressive Roman, Gothic, Baroque, Victorian and Art Nouveau (just to name a few) structures sprout from the streets of Barcelona. The city’s most famous form of architecture is Art Nouveau (or Modernisme), a style characterized by whimsical curves, unexpected asymmetry and flamboyant colors. Antoni Gaudi is a Barcelona architect whose turn-of-the-20th-century structures, like the Casa Batllo and Casa Mila, are some of Barcelona’s best works of Art Nouveau. Gaudi died before completing his final building, the Sagrada Familia. The cathedral, rife with religious symbolism, is a mess of mesmerizing, spindly towers with a geometric interior and a sculpted, frothy facade (Salvador Dali once referred to the Sagrada Familia as “very creative bad taste”).

Gaudi’s fanciful creations add a bright and modern element to Barcelona’s historic architectural landscape, which also includes ancient sites like Roman ruins, Gothic cathedrals and Neoclassical squares. Take a trip back to the Dark Ages with a visit to Sant Pau del Camp, a 10th-century cathedral that is the oldest church in Barcelona. Find medieval architecture and Roman ruins in the Barri Gothic, a Gothic quarter in the Old City. Or visit Barcelona’s largest square, Placa d’Espanya, to see Moorish Revival and contemporary architectural styles.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Chicago may have pioneered the skyscraper, but the over-the-top emirate of Dubai is taking the form to dizzying new heights — literally. The brand-new Burj Khalifa (formerly known as the Burj Dubai) is the tallest building in the world; at over 800 meters high (about half a mile), it, well, towers over its closest runner-up, the 508-meter Taipei 101.

But the Burj Dubai is just the tip of the architectural iceberg. Over the past couple of decades Dubai has seen an unprecedented construction boom, and each new hotel, mall and high-rise is glitzier and more expensive than the last. Buildings of note include the iconic Burj al-Arab, the world’s only seven-star hotel, and the angular Emirates Towers, two side-by-side structures of gleaming glass and steel. Travelers looking for the more traditional side of Dubai can visit its many mosques, which showcase traditional Islamic architecture with lovely domes, colorful tilework and soaring minarets.

Boston, Massachusetts

Strolling the historic streets of Boston is like taking a trip back in time through centuries of American architecture. Many of the city’s oldest and most beloved buildings date back to the colonial era, including the Old North Church (built in the first half of the 18th century) and the Old State House, where the Declaration of Independence was first proclaimed in 1776. The most notable influence on Boston architecture was Charles Bulfinch, an architect who helped develop the Federal style that can be seen along much of the city’s historic Freedom Trail. The gold-domed Massachusetts State House, the Quincy Market with its stately columns, and the lovely brick townhomes of the Beacon Hill neighborhood are all examples of the Federal architecture for which Boston is best known.

Newer but no less interesting buildings can be found in the Back Bay neighborhood, home to some of the city’s most elegant Victorian brownstones as well as its tallest skyscrapers — such as the 60-story John Hancock Tower (designed by I.M. Pei and Henry N. Cobb).

Beijing, China

For a first-hand look at Chinese architecture, Beijing is the place to be. Although Beijing has some notable contemporary architecture, the city’s most impressive sites are its historic structures, many of which are pure representations of Asian architectural movements built before Western influences began to shape the city.

Beijing houses dozens of palaces, temples and other structures that are emblematic of traditional East Asian architecture. The Great Wall, a symbol of China’s imperial history that stretches nearly 4,000 miles, is just one of Beijing’s many ancient architectural wonders that, because of sheer size or immense beauty, are spine-tingling sites to see. The Forbidden City, Beijing’s famous imperial palace, has affected Chinese architecture for centuries; its yellow tiered roof, symmetrical layout and symbolic adherence to numerology exemplify traditional Chinese Imperial architecture. View Ming architectural design at the Temple of Heaven, a sacrificial altar built in 1420 that was intended to be a meeting place between heaven and earth. One of the buildings at the Temple of Heaven, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, is an amazing circular structure made entirely of wood with no nails.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is architecturally unique because of its extensive Christian and Islamic histories — the influences of both major religions are evident in the city’s fascinating jumble of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman architectural styles. Mosques (many of which were converted from Christian churches) make up a large part of Istanbul’s celebrated architecture. The sixth-century Hagia Sophia was for many centuries the largest church in the world. With its mammoth central dome (182 feet tall and 102 feet wide), it’s considered an ideal example of Byzantine architecture. Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, is one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist attractions; be prepared to be overwhelmed by its staggering size.

Other than its many mosques, Istanbul is brimming with ancient palaces, tombs and monuments. Don’t miss Topkapi Palace — it stood as the head of the Ottoman Empire for almost 400 years, and the site’s vast complex is filled with dozens of buildings, gardens and courtyards. The palace houses the fifth largest diamond in the world and has a harem, jewel-encrusted thrones and other resplendent examples of royal excess. Tour “The Cage,” rooms where sultans’ brothers were indefinitely confined and often driven to madness.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

The unique architectural styles of Buenos Aires draw influence from Europe, specifically Italian, French and Spanish design movements. The city’s romantic iron street lamps, cafes and gardens plus its European-influenced buildings feel decidedly Continental, but the Buenos Aires landscape is anything but a carbon copy of Europe.

Buenos Aires is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own individual culture and flavor. Some of the best architecture in the city can be found in the south end, where neighborhoods La Boca, San Telmo and Montserrat are located. La Boca is one of the most photographed places in Buenos Aires — you’ll probably recognize its flamboyantly colorful houses along Caminito Street. As each neighborhood has its own personality, each building in Buenos Aires seems to represent a different period of architectural history. Victorian mansions, the Baroque- and Neoclassical-styled Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Belen cathedral, and the striking red and white colonial Museo Historico Nacional can be found in the south end of Buenos Aires.

In other parts of the city, peer at the playful geometry of Art Deco structures such as the Kavanagh Building, an apartment building that was for years the tallest skyscraper in South America. In the Plaza General Lavalle, the Teatro Colon is a world-famous opera theater that was designed in the French Renaissance style; the magnificent building sits like a grand beige wedding cake near the pillared, Neoclassical Palacio de Justica. Perhaps the most famous building in Buenos Aires is the pink Casa Rosada; Eva Peron spoke from the balcony of this Neo-Renaissance Presidential Palace, which was built in the 16th century.

Chicago, Illinois

A visit to Chicago can easily become a study of one of the most quintessentially American structures — the skyscraper. The most famous one in Chicago is the Sears Tower (now officially known as the Willis Tower). Visit the 110-story skyscraper, which was the tallest building in the world until the late 1990’s, and ride the elevator to the Skydeck, from which you can view four states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin) on a clear day. Chicago has literally dozens of other noteworthy skyscrapers, from 311 South Wacker Drive — it has a Gothic-style top that is lit with about 2,000 florescent lights and is one of the most visible buildings in Chicago at night — to the towering Aon Center, which is covered with 43,000 slabs of Italian marble.

An architectural examination of Chicago isn’t complete without a mention of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work can be found throughout the city. Wright’s career began in Chicago. Visitors can stop by the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio to see where the architect developed many of his ingenious blueprints. Chicago’s Oak Park neighborhood is full of over 20 privately owned Frank Lloyd Wright Houses (you can arrange a guided tour of Oak Park at the Ginkgo Tree Bookshop). Wright fans should also check out the echoing interiors of Robie House, the modern angles of the Charnley-Persky House and other Frank Lloyd Wright structures in Chicago.

Rome, Italy

Once the greatest empire in the world, Rome remains a testament to man’s creative and architectural abilities throughout Western history. The face of Rome is embellished with early Christian monuments, medieval palaces, Baroque fountains and cathedrals built according to almost every Western architectural movement of the last 2,000 years. Rome’s heavy history is almost overwhelming — one day is never enough to absorb the city’s labyrinth of monuments and churches, and with so many eras squeezed into one big metropolis, it’s as easy to get lost in Rome’s winding alleys and streets as it is to get lost in time.

Our favorite Roman architecture? The one and only Colosseum evokes the commanding power of the ancient Roman Empire; it’s amazing to stand where gladiators battled to their deaths before tens of thousands of Roman citizens. Roman aqueducts, which are found throughout the city, are marvels of ancient engineering that revolutionized urban life in the known world. In Vatican City, St. Peter’s Basilica has the largest interior of any church, and the building is widely accepted as the most impressive cathedral on earth.

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