Image: Florence, Italy
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Florence, Italy, stands amid rolling hills studded with towers and churches. New galleries and aperitivo bars share the compact city center with more than 1 million works of art — among them Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
updated 9/19/2011 8:31:15 AM ET 2011-09-19T12:31:15

A new renaissance is under way in Florence, Italy, with the city’s historic center making room for contemporary galleries and chic aperitivo bars. And all that work has paid off: this year, Florence rose to the No. 2 ranking among Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Cities.

Slideshow: World's best cities

T+L asked readers to vote in its 16th annual World’s Best survey, rating worldwide cities in categories such as attractions, arts and culture, food, shopping and value. The result is a global guide to the cities not to miss this year.

Despite the challenging economy, travel is up, with more than 270 million travelers hitting the road this year, according to the Airports Council International. More travel means more insights into what makes a city great — whether it’s efficient transportation, affordable dining, or youthful energy — and how cities compare on a global basis. After all, the thrill of a country is most often reflected in its city life. “Cities absolutely dominate over countryside experiences for travelers,” says agent Priscilla Alexander of Protravel International. “You won’t have someone going to France and not going to Paris.”

But increased tourism doesn’t necessarily equate to bigger crowds or higher prices. Carriers such as United Airlines and Delta Airways are adding more flights to cities like Buenos Aires (No. 11) to accommodate the growing demand. Nor do you have to leave the United States to experience a world-class city. Charleston (up to No. 13 from a No. 18 ranking in 2010) is on the radar of a growing number of travelers — and Southwest’s new service makes it easier to visit than ever.

Then there are the iconic cities that inspire you to visit, no matter how complicated the journey. Take Siem Reap (No. 7). While it’s famous as the gateway to the 12th-century ruins of Angkor Wat, the city itself offers a lot to discover — it’s a full-fledged destination with luxurious boutique hotels and an artisans' collective that’s revitalizing Khmer traditions.

The complete list of World’s Best Cities for 2011 spans six continents and 24 time zones.

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