The World's Top Destination Cities

Each year millions of people hit the airways to experience new sights and cultures. Discover the top destinations where travelers indulged their wanderlust in 2018.

Cover: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo by Khairul Onggon (Pexels)

“Traveling—it gives you home in thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land.”

—Ibn Battuta, A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling

Millions of people traverse the globe each year, trading in the sights and sounds of home for the sensory stimulation of some far away land. But have you ever wondered to where, exactly, are all these people traveling?

If you have, then you're in luck—in the 2018 update to its annual report on the Global Destination Cities Index, Mastercard sheds light on where travelers are going. The report looks at over 130 cities in the world, and ranks them based on measurements like:

  • The total number of international overnight visitors for a city in a given year;
  • The daily average amount of money these visitors spent during their stay; and
  • The average number of nights visitors stayed in a city.

The Index is based on public data, not Mastercard volumes or transaction data. Learn more about the report at Mastercard’s newsroom.

So, which cities were deemed the world's top destinations? The total number of international visitors is probably the stat that catches everyone’s eye. The map below shows the top 20 cities by visitation. Cities such as Bangkok, London, and Paris stand out with volumes of visitors double or even quadruple some of their peers.

The top 20 destination cities scaled by international visitors in 2018

Visitation, however, is not the only measure for determining the top destination cities. The amount of money people spent and their length of stay adds some variety to the competition.

Read on to see the top three visited cities of 2018 and learn more about these vibrant destinations.

Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by Dan Freeman (Unsplash)

1. Bangkok, Thailand

Bustling streets and outdoor markets, mirrorlike high-rises, temples and royal palaces—from the ancient to the modern, Bangkok has it all.

Situated strategically at the mouth of the Chao Praya River, the city gained prominence as a place of intersection for diverse peoples and nations. Trading first with China, then, the rest of the world, Thailand and its capital of Bangkok has dashed onto the world stage with a flourish of delectable cuisine and vibrant street life.

Bangkok takes great, even frenetic, pride in living in the open air. Streets swell with cabs and tuk-tuks. Food sellers, Bangkok locals, and farang (foreigners) jostle one another alike in markets stretched along streets and water-filled canals. Daily temperatures scarcely dip below 70° Fahrenheit (21° Celsius), but frequently reach as high as 100° F (38° C). The warmth likely contributes to the Thai’s friendly and sociable attitudes.

The neighborhood of Banglamphu offers a wide variety of Bangkok’s street life. Take in this quintessential “Old City” with its temples, wet market canals, food, and even nightclubs. Don’t miss the mouthwatering street food vendors and be sure to take a Thai cooking class.

Once you’ve had your fill, hop on the BTS Skytrain to the Mo Chit stop. The Chatuchak Weekend Market will feel like it stretches on forever. For an evening outing, head to the Night Train Market with its tents lit up like paper lanterns.

Night Train Market. Photo by Lisheng Chang (Unsplash)

Sukhumvit, Bangkok’s international quarter, is a testimony to a rich melting pot. Middle Eastern, Japanese, and French inspirations can all be found here. Bangkok’s Chinatown could be a scene taken straight from Shanghai; Wat Traimit, the temple and home of a famous 5.5-ton golden Buddha, nevertheless reminds travelers they’re still in Thailand.

Street food in Bangkok. Photo by Lisheng Chang (Unsplash)

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

—Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach

London, United Kingdom. Photo by Jamie Davis (Unsplash)

2. London, United Kingdom

Known for Shakespeare, double-decker buses, Cockney accents, pints of ale, and more; it’s no wonder London is a top destination contender. Bisected by the meandering Thames River, London rose to fame in ancient times as a city on the water.

The city's location situated it as a place of international trade and, during the colonial period, Empire; it served as a key port of entry to the British Isles and a main conduit with continental Europe. Today London's legacy is visible in its historical sites, global finance and technology companies, and rich blend of languages, cultures, and cuisines.

The Globe Theater, the Tower Bridge, Big Ben, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye—this city has a veritable encyclopedia of the greatest hits of history-making monuments.

Check out the architecture on foot, ride around on a double-decker bus, then hop on a clipper to steam down the Thames. If you find yourself far afield after your sightseeing adventure, catch the Underground to the British Museum. This world class presentation of art and history explains the backdrop to many of those giant monuments you just finished seeing.

Oxford Street. Photo by Abi Ismail (Unsplash)

As for food, consider raising your expectations. The popular myth that British cuisine consists of greasy bangers and overcooked vegetables is no more. Unabashedly one of the world’s most international cities, London’s food scene has exploded into a smorgasbord of Michelin star chefs and, quite literally, a planetwide selection of cuisines.

Grab a pint and a plate for lunch at any one of the city’s many gastropubs. For a truly classic London evening, head to the city’s posh West End area. Enjoy a fine dining experience at a five-star restaurant; then, in the tradition Shakespeare set half a millennium ago, catch a show in London’s “Theatreland.”

Thames River. Photo by Free-Photos (Pixabay)

“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

—Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France. Photo by Stephen Leonardi (Unsplash)

3. Paris, France

Born on the water of the Seine, grown to a dense urban city, yet shot through with gardens and terraces, Paris is at once grand, historical, green, multiethnic, and modern.

Appropriately a tale of two cities, Paris sits adjacent to its historical rival, London, as a top world destination. From its early Celtic roots and Roman inhabitants through Medieval dynasties and French Monarchy, Paris today is a leading metropolis forming the fabric of what makes modern Europe. Regardless of its popularity, the city retains a special glamour in traveler’s minds as a place of character, intimacy, and splendor.

Over the centuries, Paris extended from its riverine cradle on the teardrop Île de la Cité on the Seine to house the most recognizable and grandest monuments the world over. Renowned landmarks like the Champs-Élysées, the Cathedral de Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and the Arc de Triomphe populate a magnificent tapestry of French history and culture.

Buff up your artistic sensibility at the Louvre or the Musée d'Orsay, and any of the other 200 Paris museums. Explore the winding streets and tree-lined avenues on foot or bike, then hop on and off the Batobus water bus to witness life along the Seine.

What makes Paris so alluring, however, is as much its sense of community and intimacy as it is the city's rich history. A leader in eco-initiatives, Paris has reclaimed motorways for riverside parks, seeded living walls, and installed renewable energy generation. Parisians turn out to these pedestrian-friendly streets and greenways to live their lives.

Visitors can take part, too, and frequent massive flea markets such as the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen. Meanwhile, tucked-away passages couverts (covered arcades), such as Galerie Vivienne, entertain with boutique shops and antique booksellers.

Arc de Triomphe. Photo by Alexus Goh (Unsplash)

Famished after all that walking? While the city is just as international and multicultural as any leading city, when in Paris you really should do like the Parisians. Grab a tasty and affordable bite at a traditional bistro for lunch. Later, wash your dinner down in truly literary splendor with craft cocktails at Bar Hemingway.

Parisian cafe. Photo by skeeze (Pixabay)

“Stuff your eyes with wonder, he said, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”

—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Abdullah Ghatasheh (Pexels)

There you have it, lovers of travel: a dive into the sights and majesty of the top three destination cities of 2018. Whether you want to see what all the fuss is about, check out bustling street life from Asia to Europe, or partake of world class dishes and drinks, hopefully this read has imparted some helpful answers.

Wherever you go, we wish you safe travels, and a wonderful experience in your destination of choice.

“And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.”

—Pico Iyer, travel writer