Narrowing down the cities of the world to a succinct “best of” list is a nearly impossible task for one writer, so we asked the experts we trust the most: our readers. Some results were surprising, and others, not so much, but all of your responses highlight the enduring appeal of the midsize city. These humble yet captivating places offer the amenities of a big city without the crowds and sprawl of larger urban centers. Discover your next destination or find out whether your favorite midsize city made the list.
1. Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (Winner)
Victoria is a great example of part of the draw of the midsize city: a balance of culture and accessibility. One of the biggest appeals for visitors is Butchart Gardens, an impressive botanical feat that offers lovely flowers, a stunning landscape, and seasonal events like Christmas light displays.
Victoria is also a cultural center for the region. Its Royal BC Museum is home to many fascinating exhibits and programs. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria offers a wide range of works from a diverse set of artists. The small-town feel of Victoria keeps the cultural scene down to Earth and inviting.
2. Galway, Ireland
Galway is an ideal gateway to the charm of the Emerald Isle. The city’s historic center is packed with shopping, dining, and drinking establishments, particularly around Eyre Square. For more seasonal events, explore Galway’s festival schedule. From film and music to sports and food, every interest is covered throughout the year.
Fans of literature will be pleased to find that Galway is a UNESCO City of Film, Literature, and Music, with interesting sites like Nora Barnacle’s childhood home and the Druid Theatre Company. The stunning architecture of the Galway Cathedral also warrants a visit.
3. Salzburg, Austria
Salzburg is a beautiful city full of history and culture. Visitors to the city flock to landmarks like Mozart’s house and the Salzburg Cathedral, but the city is also a hotbed for Austrian coffee culture. Other popular stops are the Mirabell Palace and Gardens and other filming locations for the classic film The Sound of Music.
While Salzburg is a fairy-tale city all year, it is particularly magical during the Christmas market season. The market at Residenzplatz Square in front of the cathedral is right out of a storybook. Like any good Christmas market, there are wide ranges of handmade gifts and warming foods and drinks available.
4. Reykjavík, Iceland
The largest city in Iceland may be a little out of the way for most travelers, but those who make it there always say it’s worth the distance. Set in the stark, unforgiving beauty of Iceland, Reykjavík is a northern gem. The city is home to some fascinating architecture like the breathtakingly modern Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre and the iconic Hallgrimskirkja Church.
To relax, visit one of Reykjavík’s thermal pools and spas like Vesturbæjarlaug or the Blue Lagoon. Other things to do include sampling the local cuisine, visiting museums, and going on a bar crawl.
5. Lucerne, Switzerland
Lucerne seems to exist outside of time on its perch among the Alps and on the shore of the lake. Getting out on the water on a leisurely cruise or paddle board is a pleasant way to get a different perspective of the midsize city.
For yet another perspective on Lucerne, take the trip up to Mount Pilatus. Once at the top, visitors can do some walking and enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding area. Experience the beauty of the city up close by exploring the Chapel Bridge and Lucerne’s Old Town.
6. Bath, England
Bath is a city with layered history dating back to Roman Britain. Visitors interested in history love exploring the ruins of the Roman baths that gave the city its name. As you work your way forward in history, you can explore medieval Bath Abbey and the Georgian architecture of The Royal Crescent and The Circus.
Not far from The Royal Crescent is Royal Victoria Park, where locals and tourists enjoy the grounds as well as botanical gardens and more. Finally, the Bath Festival turns the city into a center for music, film, art, and other cultural events. This city certainly punches above its weight.
7. Brugge, Belgium
Brugge (or Bruges) may be known to many as the location for In Bruges — the 2008 film starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson — but this midsize city is much more than a pretty backdrop for a movie. Brugge’s city center has been recognized by UNESCO for its beautifully maintained medieval architecture. Highlights of the architecture include the Belfry Tower, City Hall, and the Basilica of the Holy Blood.
In addition to its architecture, Brugge maintains strong lace-making, brewing, and chocolate-making traditions. Guests in the city have been enjoying the fruits of these crafts for centuries, and they no doubt contributed to Brugge making the cut as one of our readers’ top picks.
8. Lucca, Italy
One of the smaller cities on the list, Lucca is known for its Renaissance-era walls, but the history doesn’t stop there. Also known as the “City of 100 Churches,” Lucca is dotted with historic and art-filled churches. One of its most notable religious buildings is the Cathedral of San Martino, a marvel of architecture and art.
Between visits to churches and exploration of the narrow streets, visitors can enjoy incredible Italian food, attend festivals and events, or hop on a bike and explore the city without having to contend with big-city traffic.
9. Guanajuato, Mexico
Similar to Brugge, Guanajuato is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. TravelAwaits writer Louisa Rogers has chronicled her time as an expat in this historic colonial city. Some of her favorite experiences include exploring the callejones (alleys), visiting chapels and churches, hiking, and making new friends.
The colorful architecture of the city enchants visitors, as does a ride on the Guanajuato funicular or simply walking through the streets and markets. The city is much more manageable for exploration than larger locales like Mexico City.
10. Rotorua, New Zealand
One of the reasons that people love visiting Rotorua is that it gives them a chance to experience Maori culture firsthand. For example, just 20 minutes from Rotorua is Te Pā Tū (previously Tamaki Māori Village), a cultural experience that exposes guests to Maori culture, cuisine, songs, and stories.
Rotorua is also known as a hotbed (no pun intended) of geothermal activity. Keen kayakers can explore the steaming cliffs at Lake Rotomahana and anyone who needs a little relaxation can have a soak at the Waikite Valley Thermal Pools. All of the mentioned activities take place among the legendary natural beauty that has put New Zealand on the map.
11. Lausanne, Switzerland
Though Swiss cities all seem to have a certain charm to them, Lausanne’s location right on the bank of Lake Geneva makes for undeniable appeal. A little bit smaller than nearby Geneva, this midsize city offers access to all the fun that comes with being near the water — from boat rides to quiet walks on the shore.
One of Lausanne’s other claims to fame is its status as the location of the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the excellent Olympic Museum. Visitors also surely love the Lausanne Palace, the Flon District, and the Ouchy Promenade.
12. Toledo, Spain
Toledo is known as the “City of Three Cultures” because populations of Christians, Jews, and Muslims were able to coexist there during the Middle Ages — a decidedly rare occurrence. This blend of cultures makes for diverse architecture, cultural sites, and cuisines.
One interesting example of the crossover between cultures is the Mosque of Cristo de la Luz, a Catholic church that was once a mosque. You can see the third culture in the city’s Jewish Quarter and its Sephardic Museum.
Toledo is also associated with the famous El Greco, which is evident throughout the city, especially at the El Greco Museum.
13. Rhodes, Greece
Yet another midsize city with a long history, Rhodes is particularly popular with travelers who enjoy culture, good weather, great food, and scenic views of the water. Guests would be remiss if they didn’t take a trip to the Acropolis to experience its temples and ruins.
Upon returning to the 21st century, weary travelers can indulge in some of the excellent cuisine of Rhodes or settle down in one of these unique places to stay. Those who still have some more energy to see the sights can stop by the Palace of the Grand Master of Rhodes or the Medieval City of Rhodes, a UNESCO-listed site.
14. Rouen, France
In some ways, Rouen is like a microcosm of France; it combines world-class art, life-changing food, and interesting history with lovely architecture and beautiful natural settings. The half-timbered construction is noteworthy, as are the Rouen Cathedral, the Gros-Horloge, and the Joan of Arc Museum.
To rest and recharge after a day experiencing Rouen, TravelAwaits writer Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey recommends Tandem, L’Espiguette, and the French Coffee Shop. Also, consider Richard Nahem’s pick: Gill. The Old Market Square is a pleasant place for an after-dinner stroll.
15. Cascais, Portugal
Cascais shares many of the traits of the other cities that TravelAwaits readers selected this year, but what really sets it apart is the incredible coastline. A full breakdown of Cascais’s beaches can be found online, but one coastal feature that stands out is the Boca do Inferno, or “Hell’s Mouth.” Despite the intense name, it’s a good place to see a sunset.
Sue Reddel and Diana Laskaris — two TravelAwaits writers who retired to Portugal – took on the challenging task of narrowing down the best ocean-view restaurants in Cascais. For more views and vistas, explore Sintra-Cascais Natural Park.
16. Ubud, Indonesia
Ubud is a fascinating midsize city on the Indonesian island of Bali. Guests can explore the local culture by visiting the Agung Rai Museum of Art, attending a dance event at the Ancak Saji Ubud Palace, or viewing the carved shrines at Gunung Kawi Temple.
This city is also a great base from which to explore the natural beauty of Bali. The Ubud Monkey Forest is a sanctuary for hundreds of long-tailed monkeys, and the Bali Bird Park performs a similar function for local avian species.
Read more from our 2023 Best Of Travel Awards: