Cities have had a rough time during the pandemic, but if you look at history, they’re sure to bounce back. The Roaring Twenties came hot on the heels of the last big pandemic (the Spanish flu), and much of the action took place in urban settings. After many European cities were bombed during World War II, the Swinging Sixties followed.
So the new Time Out Index—a ranking of the world’s best cities—couldn’t come at a better moment, as this list helps celebrate what makes cities so great, even during a global pandemic. “Cities have always been relevant,” says Caroline McGinn, global editor-in-chief of Time Out. “They are a sleeping giant: they’ve been dreaming up new ways of being together and making culture through the long hibernation of the Covid winter, but now these giants are awake again and big new, exciting movements will emerge.”
For the Time Out Index 2021, more than 27,000 city dwellers around the globe—from the New York to Tokyo, Madrid to Melbourne—weighed in. Respondents were asked about a range of topics, including the ease of expressing who you are, making new friends, getting around, discovering new things, community spirit, environmental initiatives, eating, drinking, culture, nightlife and more. The Time Out team crunched the numbers, combining them with the knowledge of their local experts, to compile the definitive ranking of the world’s best cities. “With the pandemic taking its toll on local businesses, venues and residents, we wanted to champion the cities that really stepped up and pulled together as a community over the past year and a half,” says McGinn. “Resilience and strong community spirit played a vital role in affirming social life during the pandemic. So it was only right that these were upweighted in this year’s Index.”
For the first time ever, San Francisco topped Time Out’s list as the best city in the world. What propelled it to the top? “Businesses got creative to stay afloat, while innovative initiatives like the SF New Deal put restaurant employees to work making meals for those in need…and neighbors stepped up to take care of each other through far-reaching mutual aid networks,” says Clara Hogan, with Time Out San Francisco.
In the last Time Out city survey in 2019, New York topped the list, while Chicago took top honors in 2018 and 2016. No surprise: There were a lot of changes on this year’s list. “Covid really shook things up,” says McGinn. “Cities had very different experiences and locals had different feelings about them. There was a lot of movement in the top ten this year. San Francisco climbed thirty places, Manchester moved up twelve spots and Amsterdam—a modern, environmentally friendly city with green space for walks and events—was a new entry at number two.”
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One thing that surprised McGinn was the level of interest and debate among respondents, especially at a time when international travel was still mostly off-menu. “This bodes well for the renaissance of cities—don’t believe the hype, the city is far from dead,” says McGinn. “Cities are diffusing and growing in all sorts of exciting ways. Like the widespread and ongoing pedestrianization of swathes of Barcelona, Paris and London, for example.”
You can see the full list of the 37 world’s best cities here, or read on to learn more about the cities that ranked in the top 15.
1. San Francisco
Why it’s great: “During the pandemic, San Franciscans showed their unique and creative community spirit, from hanging sourdough starters from telephone poles to distributing $1 million to small businesses via the SF New Deal so they could keep running,” says McGinn.
Fun facts: “This former hippie enclave came first in the progressive category—with 73% of respondents describing it as such—and second in sustainability,” says Hogan. “It was also the most likely to be called ‘accepting.’”
Why it’s great: “The city has used the time wisely, focusing inwards on its famous beauty, history and community spirit—while vowing to do away with the coffeeshops, brothels and drunken debauchery that so blighted its historic center,” says Time Out contributor Derek Robertson.
Fun facts: Amsterdam was the second best place on the Time Out list for taking a walk in nature, the third best for sustainability and the third best for being green.
3. Manchester, England
Why it’s great: “According to the Index, Manchester is the easiest place to express who you are, make new friends, get to know your neighbors and meet people who are different from you,” says McGinn.
Fun facts: “The city came out as the friendliest and best for community spirit,” says McGinn. “The city’s nightlife was voted top, too.”
Why it’s great: “Copenhagen is officially the easiest city to relax in, according to locals, who say it’s the least stressful city, too,” says McGinn.
Fun facts: The Danish capital ranked first for sustainability and second in the world for being green.
5. New York City
Why it’s great: “It’s diverse, resilient and progressive—all qualities that have served the city well in the past 18 months and led to the success of its Open Restaurants initiative, transforming pavements into vibrant community hubs, and its new Key to NYC program, which promotes vaccine uptake,” says McGinn.
Fun facts: “According to the survey, this is the most exciting city in the world, with 85% of New Yorkers saying it’s easy to discover new and surprising things,” says McGinn.
Why it’s great: “Montreal is famous for its non-conformist music and politics, and those differences have brought the city together more than ever recently,” says McGinn.
Fun facts: In the Time Out ranking, 73% of locals describe Montreal as diverse, while even more say it’s a place where it’s easy to express who you are.
Why it’s great: “The Golden City’s gradual reopening has presented amazing opportunities to simple pleasures unthinkable in pre-pandemic Prague: having Charles Bridge almost to yourself, the audible chirrup of birds in Old Town Square, a contemplative morning coffee down a deserted side street,” says Time Out contributor David Creighton.
Fun facts: Prague was named the most beautiful city in the world. Another positive attribute: It’s the world’s second-most relaxing city.
8. Tel Aviv
Why it’s great: “After the lockdowns, Israel led the vaccination race and before long locals were back sipping cappuccinos in cafes and doing yoga on the beach,” says Time Out contributor Dan Savery Raz.
Fun facts: Tel Aviv was named the most fun city in the world for the second year in a row and it ranked as the second best place in the world for eating and drinking.
9. Porto, Portugal
Why it’s great: “Throughout the past year, Porto’s legendary graffiti artists have been busier than ever, splashing the streets with some much-needed color, while our many, many galleries have been surprisingly active, too,” says Ana Patrícia Silva with Time Out Porto. “The city has also begun to give back public space to citizens, with ample pedestrianization, more cycling infrastructure, expanded terraces and new community gardens.”
Fun facts: Porto came in second behind Manchester, England for friendliness and making new friends. It was also was also voted a great place to get to know your neighbors.
Why it’s great: “The face mask, that quintessential pandemic-era staple, was already a common accessory among Tokyoites way before Covid hit, which is perhaps why life here never really slowed over the past year,” says Lim Chee Wah with Time Out Tokyo.
Fun facts: “An overwhelming 82% of survey respondents said Tokyo was great for ‘discovering new things’—look around and you’ll notice loads of new venues and attractions have cropped up across the city over the past 18 months,” says Wah.
11. Los Angeles
Why it’s great: “Angelenos survived the past 18 months by finding a new appreciation for the city’s best outdoor assets, with all-season farmers’ markets, beach weather in winter and exhilarating canyon trail hikes,” says McGinn.
Fun facts: The city came second for creativity. To wit: Entire city blocks were turned into art installations, and parking lots became drive-in theaters.
Why it’s great: “Faced with the difficulties of the past year, Chicagoans came together to share food, support out-of-work musicians and protest injustice—it’s why we also got high marks for ‘community spirit’ and being ‘friendly’ (though maybe you can just chalk that up to Midwestern charm),” says Zach Long with Time Out Chicago.
Fun facts: Chicago came in second for community spirit, its fun factor and its beauty. It was also named the third-most resilient city in the world.
Why it’s great: “The main thing this city has going for it (and this is backed up by 2021’s Index stats) is diversity. In fact, a whopping 88% of locals described the city as diverse. Nowhere in the world is as mixed. Nowhere is as inclusive,” says Joe Mackertich with Time Out London.
Fun facts: London was named the best place to discover new and surprising things.
Why it’s great: “The city rallied behind the motto #CulturaSegura (“culture is safe”), with cultural organizers finding savvy ways to put on live music, exhibitions, theatre and film screenings pretty much throughout the pandemic,” says María-José Gómez with Time Out Barcelona.
Fun facts: In Barcelona, 83% of locals rated the city highly for culture, and 85% giving it top marks for food and drink.
15. Melbourne, Australia
Why it’s great: “As the city struggles through its sixth hard lockdown in 18 months, there is still a lot of love to be found in this fine Australian city,” says Rebecca Russo with Time Out Melbourne.
Fun facts: Equality is big here. “A measly 10% of respondents called Melbourne unequal—the lowest of any city in the world,” says Russo.