Cities can be known for their cultural offerings, their pace of life or their public transportation systems, but some metropolises have a special quality or quantity of buildings that creates a unique urban thumbprint and resonates with people across the globe. These cities, often cited as the “world’s best” for architecture or design in such publications as Conde Nast TravelerBloomberg Businessweek and ArchDaily, may not all have universal appeal, but they do have a vibrant and unforgettable cityscape.

From Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry, famous architects from the last 100 years have peppered the shoreline of Lake Michigan with their worthy creations. The Chicago School (and offshoot Prairie School) of architecture was one of the most influential of the 20th Century because their steel-frame constructions paved the way for the world’s first skyscrapers. Today, structures like Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park and the Renzo Piano glass-and-light filled addition to the Art Institute of Chicago make this Midwest city the United States’ architectural trendsetter. 

The number and length of foreclosures citywide continue to drag down the real estate market, but Chicago is continuing to improve and rehabilitate parks and neighbourhoods, such as the new construction of Maggie Daley Park (part of Grant Park) and the Target department store that is being built on the site of the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects, just 12 blocks from Chicago’s wealthy Gold Coast. Condos in high-profile residential buildings like The Contemporaine, designed by architect Ralph Johnson and built in 2004 in the art gallery-filled River North neighbourhood, are highly sought after and start at around $400,000. The median price for a single family home in the buzzy Near North Side neighbourhood (which includes River North) is $1.5 million, while in West Town (which includes trendy Wicker Park) is $606,000. The median price for a condo in desirable Lincoln Park is $380,000, while to the north in more affordable Logan Square it is $240,000. In Near North Side, rents average around $2,780 a month for a two-bedroom flat, while in Lincoln Park a two-bed averages around $2,075.

In a city whose mere sidewalks are decorative and beautiful, it is no hard task to find beauty when you lift your eyes just a few metres. The famous Antoni Gaudi buildings, including La Pedrera with its facade that flows with Art Nouveau brilliance, whet the appetite for his stunning mosaic fantasy of Parc Guell and masterwork of the still-to-be-completed Sagrada Familia cathedral. From Mies van der Rohe to Jean Nouvel, almost every great architect of the modern era has left their mark on Barcelona's cityscape – from Nouvel’s Torre Agbar, a bullet-shaped skyscraper built in 2005, to the newly opened Las Arenas, a shopping centre built inside the famed, decommissioned bull-fighting ring, designed by Richard Rogers.

Although one of the most architecturally experimental cities in Europe, Barcelona is suffering from what ails the entire Spanish economy, which is currently in a deep recession. “The market is still going down but at a slower rate,” said David Franks, a sales agent for Lucas Fox estate agents. “There are many opportunities for investment at prime locations.” In central Barcelona, an 80 to 120sqm property costs between 300,000 and 600,000 euros. To attract more foreign investment, the Spanish government is considering giving residency visas to international buyers who purchase a property for more than 160,000 euros. The average rent for a three-bed flat in the city centre is 1,200 euros a month.

It is not the greatness of Dubai’s architecture that makes the list, but that the city has so much of it. Although the recession put a halt to some of the construction, such as Rem Koolhaas’ Waterfront City and the solar-and-wind powered Lighthouse Tower, which have been indefinitely suspended, plenty of other mind-boggling structures have been built. Top of the list is the current title holder of the world’s tallest building, the 160-floor, 830m-high Burj Khalifa, which opened in 2010. The manmade Palm Jumeirah islands, created by dredging the seabed, can be seen from space, while the towers of the Dubai Marina district and structures like the black pyramid of the Raffles hotel were all constructed at a blinding pace that stunned the world. Now that the economy is stabilising, Dubai is gearing back up with massive new projects like the Dubai Modern Art Museum and Opera House District announced in 2012, though a completion date is yet unknown. But nothing has yet surpassed the wind-stiffened, bellied-out sail of the Burj Al Arab hotel, which opened in 1999 and is arguably still the most famous silhouette on the Dubai skyline.

Some of the most desirable locations to live are in close proximity to these city landmarks and have a high-impact visual quality of their own, such as the curving, 80-storey Infinity Tower in Dubai Marina and the low villas of the Arabian Ranches community. “People look at the proximity to work, access to main roads, public transport, public facilities and schools,” said David Lawes, senior residential consultant for Better Homes realtors. “They want the best location and quality for their budget.” Average house prices in Dubai Marina are 1.8 million dirhams and rentals are 120,000 dirhams per year.

Although this Scandinavian city is currently in vogue for New Nordic cuisine at the likes of Noma, the world’s best restaurant, and its highly popular television series such as Forbryldeson (The Killing), Danish architecture and urban planning are a perennial draw. A number of new public and private buildings have rejuvenated the waterfront and undeveloped parts of the city. The Black Diamond that gleams darkly on the harbourfront is a stunning addition to the Royal Library that houses exhibition spaces and a concert hall, while the Royal Danish Playhouse adds its lustre to the same area. Home-grown wunderkind Bjarke Ingels’ award-winning 8TALLET and VM residential buildings in the new development of Ørestad City on the island of Amager, south of the city centre, have reinvented the modern apartment block by giving every flat a view of the surroundings. “The few residential buildings designed by him are very popular,” said Torben Andersen, co-founder of RobinHus, a web real-estate firm. “They have helped draw interest to a part of Copenhagen that was basically barren land on the outskirts of the city.” The new district is also home to Jean Nouvel’s blue cube of a concert hall DR Koncerthuset.

The recession has affected Copenhagen’s housing market, but in 2012 prices increased more than 7% from 2011. However, restrictions still apply to non-EU citizens looking to purchase property unless you get a permit that states you are going to be a permanent resident. With the average purchasing price at 21,000 Danish kroner per square metre, a two-bedroom flat costs around 1.3 to 1.5 million Danish kroner, while large apartments can cost up to 4.5 million Danish kroner. Average rent for a two-bed flat in an older building costs around 5,000 Danish kroner per month, while those in new construction can cost double that.

This vertical city hovers over its colonial and historic past. The dazzling towers of the Pudong District blaze far above the former banks and custom houses on the Bund, the rows of 19th-century shikumen townhouses and the Art Deco buildings and leafy lanes of the French Concession. The Pearl of the Orient TV Tower dominates the city skyline, but closer to the street, Arata Isozaki’s Himalaya Center, a retail, hotel and theatre complex, and the Oriental Art Center, designed by Paul Andreu, ground the district. Soon Shanghai Tower, slated for completion in 2014, will have 121 stories and be the second tallest building in China. (The next world’s tallest building, Sky City in Changsa – with 220 floors – is to be built this year.) Meanwhile, the after-effects of hosting the World Expo 2010 are still benefitting the city with the 5sqkm site being redeveloped into a mixed-use district along the Huangpo River, walkable from the Bund, by 2016.

Shanghai’s housing market continues to bubble along, with prices rising in recent months and an improvement in sales volume from 2011.  The average house price is 20,677 renminbi per square metre and foreign buyers need to prove one year of residency in order to buy a home. The luxury residences in Pudong’s highrises are popular with buyers who wants to live in the sleekest, most upscale of apartments, while others seek a piece of history with a Western-style row house in the French Concession. A two-bed apartment in a newly constructed building in Pudong can start at 8 million renminbi. A one-bedroom city centre flat costs about 5,500 renminbi per month, while a three-bed costs 12,000 renminbi. Lane houses rent for 25,000 to 80,000 renminbi a month and sell for anywhere from 20 to 80 million renminbi.