The best city breaks for architecture, from the palaces of Paris to the barrios of Buenos Aires

The best architectural cities are rich in history and culture, every turn revealing something unique or a discovery from the past. These five encompass everything from art deco to ancient temples

A great man once told us to always look up in a city: from hidden gargoyles to ancient signage, it’s on the top of buildings that you can see some historical treats. It’s a lesson worth carrying with you on your travels. Here are five architecturally rich cities that are steeped in history, design and character.

Beijing, China

Beijing has some of the finest examples of Chinese classical architecture in the country and many of the buildings are rooted in tradition. In recent years the city has also become known for its daring modern creations, such as the Bird’s Nest, the stadium that hosted the 2008 Olympics.

In the northwestern part of the city lies Fragrant Hills Park, a beautiful example of an imperial garden, which originated during the Jin Dynasty and whose 395 acres include a forest, hills and lots of architectural relics erected by successive dynasties throughout its 800-year history.

Highlights include Jianxin Mansion, which dates from the 16th century, and the imposing and decorative Pagoda of the Zongjing Monastery, which survived a fire that destroyed its surrounding 18th-century building. 

Istanbul, Turkey

The haunting beauty of Istanbul is hard to deny and its elegant silhouette tells the tale of a city that was once the centre of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires and which today is an melting pot of ethnicities.

The location of this city, caught between Europe and Asia, means that it has long attracted invaders, from the Greeks to the Persians to the Venetians. All those peoples and cultures have left their mark. 

The most intricate and delicate designs (both inside and outside) came from the Byzantines and the Ottomans. The former were liberal with their decorative motifs and mosaics, while the Ottomans undertook ambitious building projects such as the Blue Mosque, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Istanbul might just boast the most beautiful skyline in the world.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires’ La Boca district is famous for its European influences


Buenos Aires, Argentina

In this pulsating city, the throbbing heartbeat of the nation, you can see remnants of its Spanish colonial rule as well as other architectural influences from the Ancient Greece, France and Italy, which began to appear once it declared independence in the early 19th century and tried to claw back its own character.

Take a stroll through its residential streets and, with the shutters on the windows and the balconies overhead, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d taken a wrong turn and ended up in Paris.

In Plaza de Mayo you can see a remnant of colonial times in its town hall (now a museum), the Italian renaissance-style presidential palace and the French chateaux-inspired city hall.

Buenos Aires is known the world over for tango and there is no better place to watch it than in San Telmo, the bohemian quarter, whose faded grandeur will transport you back in time.

Marvel at the Louvre pyramid, even in wintertime. Photo by Jacques Lebar from Paris Tourist Office


Paris, France

The French capital is a lesson is mixing old architectural styles with new: stroll its streets (or boulevards) and you’ll see examples of medieval, renaissance, neoclassic and art nouveau architecture, all of which give the city its unique identity.

Don’t forget to look up to gaze at gargoyles and intricate window panes – (a set of binoculars is a must if you’re an architecture buff).

Spot too the hundreds of Parisian plaques that showcase significant landmarks and sights, such as the former home of Sigmund Freud (on Rue de Goff) or the epic height of the Great Paris Flood of 1910, among hundreds of others. Each unlocks a piece of Paris history.

For a taste of the long history of Paris, stop by the oldest stone building in the city. The house of 14th-century scribe Nicolas Flamel on 52 Rude de Montmorency. The builiding, now a restaurant, is a window into the past and tells of an intriguing time of alchemy; Flamel and his wife claimed to have achieved immortality.

For the modern architecture wonder, study the Louvre Pyramid. Designed by IM Pei, it’s a baton to the future next to the classical architecture of the museum. The spectacular glass and metal pyramid is designed to filter the vast numbers of visitors passing through the enormous museum’s main entrance every day, but it is a stunning piece of architecture on its own right.

Miami’s Perez Art Museum houses the pulsing city’s up-and-coming modern art


Miami, Florida

Want to act like Marilyn for the day? Ever fancied being driven round in a Cadillac while wearing a scarf in your hair and Hepburn-esque sunglasses? If so, Miami’s South Beach, which lies in the heart of its Art Deco district, is the place to be seen.

Built between 1923 and 1943, the playful and chic buildings of Miami’s Art Deco district are a throwback to the glamorous days of early Hollywood.

So perfect are the pastel-coloured buildings that you feel as though you’ve just walked on to a film set and you almost expect to see Clark Gable step out of his old hangout of Park Central and hail a cab.