Top 10 cities

1. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Brazil’s Carnaval capital, wedged between emerald mountains and a sapphire sea, is not without its problems, but it can throw some glitzy parties. And what better excuse to dust off the drums than a football World Cup played on home soil? Away from the samba and the soccer, Rio’s parks, beaches and gardens are frantically being spruced up for the 2016 Olympics. If you’d rather see a World Cup game in more relaxed surroundings, try Brazil’s first colonial capital, Salvador de Bahia, 1000 miles to the north.

2. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

The world’s great religions mingle on the streets of Sarajevo. It’s been likened to a mini Istanbul – even a mini Jerusalem – but in its slow recovery from the brutal war years, Sarajevo has carved out its own exciting future. Theatres and coffee houses are the main creative breeding grounds, but among the bullet-scarred buildings and swirling coils of shisha smoke you’ll find riotous nightclubs, sweet-smelling bakeries and independent bookshops.

3. Liverpool, England

All we ever got in those early day was "Where are you from? Liverpool? You'll have to be in London before you can do it. Nobody's ever done it from Liverpool." – Paul McCartney (singer/songwriter)

What began with the gradual redevelopment of the Albert Dock area has evolved into a full-blown cultural renaissance. Liverpool, once named the world’s pop music capital, has rediscovered its mojo. And guess what? It’s setting trends again. Visit in 2014 to experience the Liverpool Biennial, a ten-week-long contemporary arts festival over the summer that sees the city filled with works from around the world. Also keep an eye out for new creative quarters like the Baltic Triangle, where bars and fashion studios are springing up in old, brick-built warehouses near the Mersey.

4. Umeå, Sweden

Population-wise, Umeå doesn’t even make it into Sweden’s top ten. But culturally, this remote northern city punches well above its weight. Here, opera and death metal are admired with equal gusto. Bitterly cold winters are not avoided, but embraced in the great outdoors – albeit with gloved hands. And the city’s 36,000-odd students, many of them artists, keep things looking fresh. Umeå is this year’s European Capital of Culture (along with Riga), and the year-long schedule of happenings should tempt adventurous travellers to make the long journey north.

5. Lviv, Ukraine

Hemmed in by farms and forests in the far west of Ukraine, Lviv is a small city with worldly aspirations. During Euro 2012, football fans stayed in the UNESCO-listed city centre, with its rickety trams and east–west fusion of architectural delights. Officials now want to develop tourism in the Carpathian Mountains, less than 100 miles away, and have set their sights on hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics. Our tip is to go soon, or face a long queue for the ski lifts. Don’t forget to check your local embassy for travel advice on Ukraine.

6. Marseille, France

Its beauty cannot be photographed. It can only be shared. – Jean Claud Izzo (poet and playwright)

Despite an investment totalling several hundred million euros, Marseille’s time as a European Capital of Culture in 2013 was marred by embarrassing delays. Now, the gleaming art galleries planned for the event have finally opened their doors and the coastal city, long feared domestically for its high crime rate, is beginning to make headlines for the right reasons. With Roman ruins to explore, aniseed liqueurs to quaff and perfumed lavender gardens to laze in, you may find that a weekend is not enough.

7. Almaty, Kazakhstan

It’s no longer the capital (that title went to Astana in 1997) but Almaty remains Kazakhstan’s most alluring city. Its setting along the old Silk Road, with rippling mountains all around, is as exotic as they come. Add this to the recent economic boom, which has seen luxury brands pumping millions into new developments, and Borat-style stereotypes disintegrate completely. Almaty tried (and failed) to win the 2014 Winter Olympics, but the nearby ski resorts are still ripe for exploration.

8. Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Rotterdam is best known for its container-clogged port, but in the past few years, more exciting projects have been dropping anchor. The Netherlands’ biggest building, a new “vertical city” called De Rotterdam, will soon be alive with cafés and restaurants, heralding a new dawn for the high-rise area locals have dubbed Manhattan on the Maas. Across town, the cavernous tube-shaped Market Hall is about to open as Rotterdam’s best snack stop, with a hundred food stalls selling everything from chewy waffles to giant balls of edam.

9. Glasgow, Scotland

Glasgow is less polite than Edinburgh but that's a good thing- they keep it very real. – Nik Kershaw (singer/songwriter)

In the past few decades, Scotland’s biggest city has shrugged off its post-industrial malaise to emerge as a cultural powerhouse. The River Clyde, which once ferried tobacco traders towards the city, now flows past smoking-hot artists’ studios and museums, which have appeared in rejuvenated docks. Highlights include the Riverside Museum, named European Museum of the Year in 2013, and the spanking-new SSE Hydro – one of more than a dozen venues hosting the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

10. Portland, USA

Portland is a place where you can find a community as a feminist, a vegan or a fat activist. Artists, musicians, knitters and filmmakers can all meet like-minded souls. – Beth Ditto (singer)

Smaller than San Francisco but with the same green open-mindedness, Portland is a city that loves to innovate. Breezy gardens stud Downtown’s grid of tree-lined streets, home to the laidback bars that support one of America’s best craft beer scenes. If you’d rather chew than chug, you’re in luck – there are more than four hundred food carts dotted across the city, plus farmers’ markets, doughnut shops and brunch joints.

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