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Cape Town named third greatest city on Earth

A ranking using objective measures has put the Mother City above heavy hitters including Paris, Tokyo, London and New York

08 May 2022 - 00:00 By Elizabeth Sleith
Cape Town has ranked third in a study identifying the 'Greatest city on Earth'.
Cape Town has ranked third in a study identifying the 'Greatest city on Earth'.
Image: Esa Alexander

Which do you think is the greatest city on Earth? It’s certainly a divisive question and age-old dinner-party debate, which the UK’s Telegraph newspaper says it has finally settled — “with science”. 

The newspaper went on a mission recently to find the answer. Starting with its own pick of 50 contenders for the top spot, it whittled this down using an annual reader survey plus input from a panel of travel writers. 

Next it assigned each shortlisted city a score based on a range of factors, from the number of museums and galleries, Unesco Heritage Sites, Michelin restaurants and five-star hotels counted in each city, to air cleanliness, to how they measure on safety for members of the LGBTQ+ community (based on the Asher and Lyric LGBTQ+ Danger Index). 

Bonus points were awarded for cities with a beach, canal system or river; a symphony orchestra; and a sophisticated metro system.

La Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, Spain.
La Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, Spain.
Image: tomas1111 / 123rf.com

Out of a possible 810 points, the highest score — and title of “greatest city on Earth” — went to Barcelona, Spain. The newspaper praised the city for its “relaxed pace, months of endless sunshine, unbeatable food and the best cultural and design clout of almost any city in the cold north”.

It also scored highly for its inclusive LGBTQ+ scene, low-emission credentials and sweeping beach. 

The only areas where Barcelona was marked down were on its green-space ranking (its biggest public park, Ciutadella, is only 17-hectares) and its high population density of about 16,000 people per km2. (Cape Town, by comparison, has 1,530 people per km2). 

In second place was Sydney, Australia, which was called a “functional, stress-free city” with low urban density, plenty of green space, a low-emission ranking and dozens of five-star hotels.

And in third place, and highest-ranking city in Africa, was Cape Town. The newspaper says its “topography and geography alone make [it] stand out above the others” and that its beaches, copious sunshine hours and towering Table Mountain, the latter providing the highest view and the biggest green space out of any city in the list, bumped it into a podium position. 

If it weren't for the city's poor safety record (Cape Town has the highest homicide rate on the list), it would have come in at number one overall. 

Below is how the top 50 cities placed, with what each city scored out of 810. 

  • 1. Barcelona (588)
  • 2. Sydney (556)
  • 3. Cape Town (549)
  • 4. Lisbon (548)
  • 5. Venice (543)
  • 6. Los Angeles (535)
  • 7. Dubai (523)
  • 8. London (518)
  • 9. Vancouver (516)
  • 10. Florence (515)
  • 11. Stockholm (511)
  • 12. Paris (508)
  • 13. Seville (502)
  • 14. San Francisco (501)
  • 15. Melbourne (495)
  • 16. Vienna (491)
  • 17. Madrid (491)
  • 18. Singapore (487)
  • 19. Dubrovnik (476)
  • 20. Beijing (472)
  • 21. Tokyo (471)
  • 22. Rome (470)
  • 23. Berlin (465)
  • 24. Dublin (463)
  • 25. Istanbul (451)
  • 26. Auckland (449)
  • 27. Edinburgh (448)
  • 28. Tel Aviv (447)
  • 29. Havana (445)
  • 30. Copenhagen (444)
  • 31. New York City (439)
  • 32. Rio de Janeiro (435)
  • 33. Mexico City (432)
  • 34. New Orleans (427)
  • 35. Amsterdam (420)
  • 36. Prague (419)
  • 37. Bruges (418)
  • 38. Toronto (410)
  • 39. Buenos Aires (408)
  • 40. Krakow (403)
  • 41. Las Vegas (398)
  • 42. Shanghai (390)
  • 43. Hong Kong (376)
  • 44. Budapest (375)
  • 45. Chicago (374)
  • 46. New Delhi (368)
  • 47. Athens (366)
  • 48. Bangkok (318)
  • 49. Mumbai (317)
  • 50. Marrakesh (314)

Each city was ranked according to the following criteria: 

  • Its number of Unesco World Heritage sites 
  • Number of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita 
  • Distance from city centre of the closest airport
  • Clean air ranking according to the CDP environmental performance index
  • Size of the biggest park 
  • Age of oldest extant building
  • Number of five-star hotels per capita (listed on booking.com)
  • Highest accessible observation point (including natural vantage points)
  • Number of museums and galleries listed on Tripadvisor (per capita)
  • LGBTQ+ safety ranking based on the Asher and Lyric LGBTQ+ Danger Index
  • Homicide rate according to the UNODC
  • Disabled access (according to hotels data on kayak.com)
  • Annual hours of sunshine
  • Urban population density

Bonus points were issued to cities with:

  • A beach
  • A canal system, harbour or river
  • A bike or scooter-sharing scheme
  • A symphony orchestra; and
  • A metro system that comprises more than just buses and suburban railway networks

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