World's Most Stunning City Skylines


From modern skyscrapers like the John Hancock Center and the Sears Tower—the world’s tallest high-rise building for more than 23 years ending in 1997—to earlier icons such as the 1895 Reliance Tower and 463-foot-tall Chicago Tribune Tower, completed in 1925, Chicago boasts a skyline of monumental proportions. Says Andres Lepik, “As far as great American skylines go, for me it’s mostly New York and Chicago.”


More people recognize the glorious Sydney Opera House than have probably ever been to an opera. A protected park behind the iconic structure serves to frame the modern skyline behind it, and there’s the expansive blue of Sydney Harbor in the foreground. “Sydney has one of world’s most fascinating skylines,” according to Andres Lepik, author of Skyscrapers. Star architect Renzo Piano added the 44-story Aurora Place to Sydney’s downtown mix in 1996.


It was clear with the erection of the 1,053-foot-tall Burj al Arab Hotel in 1999 that the sheikdom of Dubai was bent on stealing the global skyline spotlight. Lest there be any doubt, consider that this year Dubai will be home to the tallest skyscraper in the world: the 1,900-foot Burj Dubai tower. It already soars above the rather dismally named Business Bay district. Though Andres Lepik, author of Skycrapers and architecture curator at MoMA, says he wouldn’t call Dubai’s skyline beautiful because “it’s grown too fast, without a general idea of what they’re trying to achieve,” Dubai makes it on this list by dint of sheer boldness. In the pipeline: Zaha Hadid’s “Dancing Towers,” the Da Vinci Rotating Tower and 0-14 Tower.


Seattle’s location between Puget Sound and Lake Washington lends an impressive backdrop to its central skyline, of which the Space Needle has been the most recognizable feature since its completion in 1962. Though it isn’t the city’s tallest structure—that distinction goes to the 76-story Columbia Center—it often appears so because of its position on a hill some four-fifths of a mile northwest of most of the skyscrapers downtown. With Mount Rainier in the distance, Seattle’s skyline comes with a romantic frontier feel.


It’s an absence of skyscrapers that defines the French capital’s skyline (with no usable surfaces, the Eiffel Tower doesn’t count). Thanks to its concentration of historic slate gray-roofed six and seven-story buildings, many of which date from the mid-19th century and before, Paris has a remarkably uniform skyline for a city of its size. Lending romance to the cityscape are the familiar historic monuments such as Notre-Dame, the domes of Sacre-Coeur and the Sorbonne and the grandiose roof of the Palais Garnier opera house.


London’s Parliament and Big Ben “were skyscrapers in their time,” say architects Peter Stamberg and Paul Aferiat. “And today London has some amazing modern buildings, such as The London Eye and the Norman Foster-designed ‘Gherkin’ building, which looks like a giant pickle. So you have these contemporary pieces punctuated against the fabric of an old city that make it recognizable and also very romantic.”


“Houston has the Transco Tower and also Pennzoil Place, two towers that kiss,” say New York architects Peter Stamberg and Paul Aferiat, “and all three are Philip Johnson buildings.” They add, “the bizarre thing about Houston is that you can have a 50-story building next to a one-story building, for an entire city block, so you have these sort of large holes that exist between the towers.”


Pittsburgh has one of America’s great unsung skylines. The reason? According to architects Peter Stamberg and Paul Aferiat, it’s because Pittsburgh is “right at the intersection of three fairly large rivers, and you approach it through a mountain, so you arrive completely deprived of a view, through a tunnel. And then you’re on a bridge looking at the city. It’s very beautifully proportioned the way it starts fairly low at the river and then climbs to the U.S. Steel building, which is the tallest there.”

Hong Kong

Whether you’re gazing at Hong Kong’s brash skyline from Victoria Peak or across the harbor from the Kowloon side, you’ll be taking in one of the most spectacular urban landscapes in the world. Says Andres Lepik, author of Skyscrapers, “Hong Kong decided in the ‘80s to redesign the image of the city. In the run-up to Hong Kong’s reversion to China, it was decided to give the city a strong image to command world attention and make it an attraction. It started with Norman Foster’s Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Headquarters, then I.M. Pei’s Bank of China building, which was a reaction to that one.”


The Canadian metropolis on the shore of Lake Ontario is recognizable around the world thanks to the presence of the CN Tower, which soars 1,815 feet above the city. (As a freestanding structure, the only thing taller in the world today is the Burj Dubai). It has neither office nor living space, but there is a restaurant with a killer view near the top. With more than 2,000 towers that exceed 300 feet, verticality is a distinguishing feature of the varied Toronto skyline. Canada’s largest aggregate of skyscrapers is located in downtown’s Financial District.

San Francisco

“San Francisco can be easily recognized by the the mountainous topography and the Transamerica Pyramid,” say Peter Stamberg and Paul Aferiat, partners in Stamberg Aferiat Architecture in New York. Its skycrapers are nowhere near as numerous or tall as Manhattan’s, but in light of the waterfront setting, famous bridges and interplay of old and new, the City by the Bay is easily one of the world’s most photogenic.


They call it “Mainhattan,” a reference to the River Main and the high-rises of Frankfurt’s city center. “You can hardly talk about skylines in Europe except maybe for Frankfurt, which started in the ‘80s and ‘90s to develop a skyline,” says Andres Lepik, author of Skycrapers and architecture curator at MoMA in New York. “It was a political act to allow high-rise buildings in the center, for the economic and business image of the city,” he adds. Landmark towers in the German financial powerhouse include the pyramid-capped Messeturm and the Norman Foster-designed Commerzbank building.

New York City

Take iconic skyscrapers from the 1920s and ‘30s such as the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building and American Radiator Building, add plenty of sleek new ones, and splay them all out on a long narrow island, and you’ve got the world’s most famous skyline. Says Paul Aferiat of Stamberg Aferiat Architecture, “the agglomeration of New York skyscrapers has as its centerpiece the Empire State Building, which is such an iconic romantic building, and through the accidents of economics and zoning, it stands alone.” Manhattan’s skyscrapers are clustered around lower Manhattan, Midtown and Midtown South.

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