10 International Cities With Stunning Skylines

The view from above

Photo: tommy@chau [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

There is something special about looking out at the skyline of a large city — something magical about seeing the buzzing streets, bright lights and beautiful architecture from afar.

Most major cities have a few urban overlooks and skyscraper-top observation decks, but there are a handful of metropolises where you could make a full itinerary of overlook points, observation towers, revolving restaurants, rooftops and sky bars.

Here are 10 cities with the most accessible views and the most beautiful skylines.

Shanghai

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Shanghai has become one of the world's most-populous cities (and one of the most economically important). From a skyline standpoint, the metropolis has it all. The famous Bund building is still characterized by the type of grand historic buildings that dominated the city during the 1920s, when it was a cultural and economic hub for all of East Asia. Look in another direction, however, and you will be confronted with a forest of modern skyscrapers.

The Bund can be seen from the Lujiazui area in the Pudong District, which itself has an impressively modern skyline that can be viewed from the water-front promenade on the Bund. A ferry service connects Pudong with the Bund, making it possible to grab a snapshot of both the modern and historic faces of Shanghai in one afternoon. To view the city from on high, the three observation decks on the top of the Shanghai World Financial Center can't be beat. The 100th floor deck is currently the tallest observation deck in the world, standing more than 1600 feet above the street.

Hong Kong

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Hong Kong is famous for its skyline, which is densely populated with modern and classic buildings. The best place to see this legendary urban panorama is Victoria Peak, which can be reached on a tram that climbs the steep slopes that frame the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island.

Great views are also possible from sea level on the shores of Victoria Harbor either on the island side or Kowloon side (or by taking a Star Ferry across the harbor to get a view from both vantage points). The Intercontinental Hotel's Lobby Lounge, on the Kowloon waterfront, features panoramic views of the skyline which are unbeatable (if you don't mind springing for a $10-plus cocktail).

Tokyo

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Tokyo's skyline can seem endless. There is not one headlining urban overlook that all tourists flock to, but rather a full menu of options, viewing platforms and rooftop venues. One of the best places to see the skyline is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. The observation deck here can be reached via a high-speed express elevator that travels up the 45 floors in only a few seconds. You can see a number of Tokyo skyscrapers and the famous Tokyo Tower from this vantage point. On a clear day, Mount Fuji is visible on the horizon.

Another option is an observation area on the 40th floor of Tokyo's World Trade Center building. Of course, sometimes Tokyo is most impressive when you are at street level, surrounded by neon. The Shibuya Crossing, clogged with foot traffic in the evening, is a great place to feel this Japanese city's urban buzz.

Chicago

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Blessed with some of the best architecture in the country, Chicago's downtown area is a popular destination for design enthusiasts and urban sightseers. The ultimate Windy City panorama can be experienced at the top of the John Hancock Center. The 95th floor observatory offers a 365-degree view of the heart of Chicago. If you don't mind swinging for expensive drinks (or an even more expensive meal) the Signature Room, above the Observatory, is a great place for some after-dark skyline-viewing.

The famous Navy Pier, on the shore of Lake Michigan, offers some wonderful lake-level views, as does the less-crowded Montrose Point, a natural Uptown area that is also popular with birders. If you want a little bit of a rush, you can head to Navy Pier's Aero Balloon Rides. The balloons stay tethered to the ground, but rise to more over 300 feet above lake level, providing outstanding views of the city.

New York

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The Big Apple, specifically the borough of Manhattan, has one of the most easily recognizable skylines in the world. Countless movies and television shows begin with shots of the skyline from across New York Harbor or from an aircraft's point of view, looking down over the rooftops.

If you are in Manhattan itself, a trip to the top of the famous Empire State Building will lead to some amazing views. This historic skyscraper has two observation decks, on the 86th floor and 102nd floor. Another famous landmark, Rockefeller Center, has its own observation area, which has both indoor and outdoor sections that sit more than 800 feet above street level. The major advantage of Rockefeller is that viewers can see the famous Empire State Building, as well as Central Park.

If you want food and drink to accompany the Big Apple panoramas, the View, a restaurant on the 47th floor of the Marriott Marquis, is a good option. The Brooklyn Bridge Park, meanwhile, offers some great views from ground level, while Liberty State Park is one of the best spots to see Manhattan from the Jersey side of the harbor.

Sydney

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Sydney might not have the densest concentration of skyscrapers, but it certainly has one of the world's most easily recognizable skylines, thanks to its distinctive harbor and unique buildings like the Sydney Opera House. Sydney also has a diverse selection of easily accessible ground-level lookout spots. The Balls Head and Larkin Street Lookouts provide uncrowded vantage points for viewing the harbor and the downtown skyline.

For people who want to focus on the famous Sydney Bridge and the Opera House, the best place to take some postcard-worthy snapshots is Mrs. Macquarie's Point. For those seeking a little more altitude, the Sydney Tower Eye Observation Deck provides 365-degree views of this Australian city's skyline. For people without a fear of heights, there is also a 45-minute tethered “skywalk” around the turret of the Sydney Tower.

Paris

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While every city on this list can make a claim for having the most famous skyline, Paris, thanks to its unmistakable landmarks, is certainly tops when it comes to overall recognition. The minute people see the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe, even those who have never set foot in Europe know that they are looking at Paris. The famed tower, with three observation decks and two restaurants, is a great place to see the surrounding urban landscapes.

The Parc de Belleville, which sits on the top of a 300-foot hill, offers the chance to view the skyline from amidst natural surroundings (the gardens here are worth visiting even if you aren't interested in the city views). Tourists can also head to the Sacre Coeur Basilica, in the hilly Montmartre District, for another angle, while the bridges of the Seine River provide some great views at nighttime, when Paris earns its name as the City of Lights.

London

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Not every skyline is characterized by a high density of towering buildings. Take London, for example. The understated skyline, which has only a few skyscrapers, highlights London's classic charms. Much of the city was constructed before high-rises were in vogue. Nonetheless, London's landmarks match those of Paris in terms of notoriety. Big Ben, the London and Tower bridges, and more modern sites like the London Eye give sightseers plenty to look out for.

A ride on the Eye itself is a great way to get your bearings. The 30-minute ride on the giant Ferris-wheel structure provides a glimpse of many London's landmarks, as well as some great views of the River Thames. People who don't want to spring for the pricey (but worthwhile) ride can climb the Primrose Hill in Regent's Park or Parliament Hill, which sits on the edge of the spacious Hampstead Heath. Both these vantage points offer great views of London's rooftops.

Rio de Janeiro

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No skyline is affected by geography as much as Rio de Janeiro's. The Atlantic coastline, steeply sloping hills and landmarks like the mountain-top “Cristo Redentor” statue make for a very distinctive set of urban panoramas. One of the best places to see the skyline is from Sugarloaf Mountain. This not-to-be-missed landmark rises up to a height of more than 1,200 feet. The views from the top are wonderful, but the best part of the experience is the trip to the summit on a glass-paneled cable car, which provides the perfect vantage point to see this storied Brazilian city.

Another towering peak is Corcovado, which is topped by the famous “Cristo Redentor” statue (aka the Rio Jesus statue). It is possible to see the entire city spread out before you from the grounds where the statue sits. The Skylab Bar, on the 30th floor of the Rio Othon Palace near the famed Copacabana Beach, offers skyline seekers a chance to enjoy the views of Rio with a cocktail in hand.

Kuala Lumpur

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Kuala Lumpur's skyline might not be as dense as, say, Tokyo's, but it does have more greenery than most other major Asian mega-cities. Few buildings in the world dominate a city's skyline like Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers. A skybridge that stretches between the two towers is an unusual (and slightly thrilling) place to catch glimpses of the surrounding urban/tropical landscapes. An observation deck on the 82nd floor can also be on the agenda of a visit to these side-by-side skyscrapers. Of course, the biggest drawback is that you can't see towers themselves when you are standing on or in between them.

The KL Tower is another Malaysian landmark. Though it is not as tall as the Petronas Towers, it sits on a hill and actually offers a more panoramic view of the city. The Kuala Lumpur City Center Park features some great vantage points from which to see the skyline at ground level. With green surroundings and a fountain that is illuminated at night, this park is one of the more pleasant places in the city, even without panoramic views.