The 9 best cities for modern architecture enthusiasts

If you’re interested in seeing some cutting-edge architecture that demonstrates the best of the best of contemporary design (and who isn’t), you should add these cities to your itinerary. Read on to find out why.

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
The Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Five of the cities on this list have been officially awarded the title “City of Design” by UNESCO for their contribution to the world of design, can you guess which ones? Find out at the end.

1. Dubai, United Arab Emirates

It’s a tough competition between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but Dubai has the edge. The Burj Khalifa, as impressive as the 163-floor tower is, is only the tip of the iceberg.

While most of the glory goes to the city’s stunning hotels, even the Apple Store at The Dubai Mall has massive carbon-fiber screens that fold open and closed to provide shade, and is just as much a social hangout as a place to buy. With so much of the city built in the last 25 years or less, and by talented architects from abroad (like Tom Wright) and at home (like the Dubai-based Killa Design firm), you’ll find inspiration everywhere.

2. Helsinki, Finland

Alvar Aalto paved the way for Helsinki to become a bastion of modern architecture, but the city’s more recent architectural achievements might surpass even Aalto’s iconic work. Alongside his Academic Bookstore and Finlandia Hall, be sure to add Kiasma, the contemporary art museum that’s a work of art itself, Musiikitalo concert hall, Kupla Observation Tower at the Zoo, and especially Haltia, Finland’s Nature Centre and a prime example of the beauty of sustainable design.

Every architecture fan should experience the Scandinavian aesthetic in person, and Helsinki is the perfect place to do so. Get ready for lots of curved wood and strategically placed openings for natural light.

3. Mexico City, Mexico

Mexico City is definitely the architecture hub of the region. You could spend a whole week touring the creations of two of Mexico’s most renowned architects: Agustín Hernández Navarro and Luis Barragán. Both have created many of the city’s greatest buildings, and you can even tour their former homes and studios.

If you’re looking for something built a little more recently, check out the controlled chaos of Vasconcelos library and the perforated sheet of aluminum overhead at Mexico’s National Film Archive and Film Institute. It just goes to show how versatile the word “modern” really is. If you’re still not convinced, go to Museo Soumaya and Museo Jumex to see two very different approaches side by side.

4. New York City, United States

New York isn’t all standard skyscrapers and art deco influences. As long as you know where to look, you’ll find some of the most intriguing modern buildings.

As per usual, museums and art galleries are good bets for modern architecture. Check out the Guggenheim, Museum of Modern Art, New Museum, and Whitney Museum of American Art, where the exteriors are every bit as interesting as what’s inside. Other must-sees to add to the list are the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, the Inter Active Corporation HQ, and amazing residential buildings VIA 57 West and 520 West 28th Street.

5. Tokyo, Japan

Japanese design is most known for it’s restraint and creative minimalism, so naturally the biggest city in the country would be a must-visit destination for fans of contemporary architecture.

If you’ve wondered what it feels like to go through a wormhole, go through the mirrored entrance to Tokyu Plaza Omotesando shopping mall, then check out the Dear Jingumae and Mikimoto 2 buildings to see some unique exteriors. Tokyo Midtown is a dream to visit as a tourist, and must have been a dream project for the architects. It’s a giant space of museums, offices, and even a park, all beautifully designed. At the end of a day exploring, indulge in some pineapple cakes at SunnyHills cake shop, which looks like the most carefully-crafted bird’s nest you’ve ever seen.

6. Toronto, Canada

In recent years it seems like every aspect of Toronto has embraced pushing the limits of building design. Case in point: The Royal Ontario Museum is half neo-romanesque and half deconstructivist, with the newer wing growing out from the old like crystals. Other notable structures include Ryerson Student Centre, OCAD University, the L Tower, and The Globe and Mail Centre.

And then there’s Integral House. It’s a private residence, so it’s not open for viewing, but it boasts a story just as intriguing as the design. Original owner James Stewart was a renowned mathematician (you may have read one of his calculus textbooks in university) who interviewed several architects before settling on firm Shim-Sutcliffe (even over Frank Gehry) to craft the award-winning home/event space.

7. Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne has the best of both worlds with historic buildings alongside cutting-edge ones, with more impressive modern designs already in the works, like Green Spine, which will be the tallest tower in the city when it’s completed.

From event spaces (Melbourne Exhibition Centre, AAMI Park stadium) to multi-functional complexes (Federation Square, pretty much every building on Monash University’s campus) to personal homes (Orbis apartments, Cloud House, which won a Melbourne Design Award), you’ll find amazing architecture for every purpose.

Sydney tends to get most of the architectural spotlight, but Melbourne has a lot to offer, and the designs on offer are a little more unexpected than what you’ll find in Sydney.

8. Bilbao, Spain

Bilbao should be on every architecture enthusiast’s bucket list. Alongside the classic Spanish buildings, you’ll see lots of glass exteriors and jagged lines like the front of the Basque Country National Historical Archive, and the Bizkaia Regional Library, which looks even better at night.

The real star of the show, however, is The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Designed by Frank Gehry, it’s even better than the one in New York, at least architecturally, and it made waves in the industry in 1997. Metal sheets fold and swoop around the glass entranceway, and Arachnophobes may want to avoid the giant metal spider statue.  

9. Beijing, China

Where to even start with Beijing? This is a city fully invested in the architecture of the future, with so many large-scale structures with experimental designs. The CMG Headquarters is reminiscent of an M.C. Escher drawing. The Nest stadium, The Egg opera house, and The Water Cube pool are just a few examples of how architects can take inspiration from the natural world ant take it to a high-tech, forward-thinking space.

Another area in which Beijing’s buildings take the cake is in making structures that look remarkably fluid, like the Phoenix International Media Center and the Galaxy SOHO complex. It just goes to show that there are no limits to what you can achieve even with the most seemingly rigid building materials.

So which of these cities are the “City of Design” winners? Dubai, Helsinki, Mexico City, Bilbao, and Beijing.

Which ones will you be adding to your own must-see list? Let us know on social media.