You don’t have to be a sun-seeker to love islands — some pretty amazing cities are also surrounded by water and make ideal spots to brush up on your history, absorb some culture and even do a bit of shopping. Whether you visit for a long weekend or arrive by cruise ship for a single day, these 10 islands go way beyond the beach when it comes to cool things to see and do.
You go to Hawaii for the beaches, right? But if you also love the buzz of a big city, you’ll find both in Honolulu. Sprawling along Oahu’s south shore and home to 964,000 residents, Hawaii’s capital offers plenty to do beyond enjoying a swim in the Pacific from Waikiki Beach. Hike landmark Diamond Head, visit the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites, shop for resort wear at the Ala Moana Center and meander through the bustling markets of Chinatown.
If you like your cities old — and not just centuries old, but millennia old — this sunny Italian island is for you. Visit golden-hued Siracusa, home to the 2,500-year-old Temple of Athena and Temple of Apollo, and postcard-perfect Taormina, where you can tour the Greek Amphitheatre built in the 3rd century BC. Catania, Messina and Ragusa also have superb archaeological sites and there’s a mother lode of churches in Palermo, which is Italy’s Capital of Culture for 2018.
To appreciate this Chinese island’s dramatic landscape and forest of skyscrapers, ride Asia oldest funicular to the summit of 1,818-foot Victoria Peak or take a Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour to the Kowloon Peninsula, where the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade offers stellar views of the Central district. Hong Kong entrances visitors with its frenetic East-meets-West energy, flavorful cuisine and made-to-order tailors. Stroll, savor, shop — what could be better?
Hurricane Maria, which walloped Puerto Rico in September 2017, left much of this Caribbean island struggling to recover. But Old San Juan is cleaned up, open for business and grateful that tourists are returning. For photogenic 16th and 17th-century architecture and ambience, this colonial gem (actually a 3-square-mile island in its own right) is hard to beat — from the vibrant storefronts and bars of Fortaleza, Cristo and San Francisco streets to the views of the turquoise sea from 16th-century El Morro fortress.
A gathering place since the days of the 16th-century Knights of St. John, this small Mediterranean island has one of the region’s prettiest cities: Valletta. There’s plenty to see and do — the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s also the European Capital of Culture for 2018. Top sights include the Baroque Co-Cathedral of St. John, the Grand Master’s Palace, the 500-year-old Upper Barrakka Gardens and the modern Renzo Piano-designed Parliament Building.
It’s tough to name another island that packs so much into so little space. At a compact 23 square miles, Manhattan is home to 1.64 million people (which swells to 3.9 million each weekday) and its collective heart beats 24/7 — from the opening bell on Wall Street to the standing ovations on Broadway to the hipster-filled lounges of the Lower East Side. It’s impossible to see it all (even most New Yorkers haven’t), so pick a few neighborhoods to explore, (but don’t miss Chelsea from the High Line), grab a slice of pizza and enjoy some people watching.
While not your typical desert island, the capital of the second most populous of the United Arab Emirates is indeed built on islands where the desert meets the Arabian Gulf. Al Maryah is the island where you’ll find the central business and entertainment district, but don’t miss Yas and Saadiyat islands. The former is home to both the Yas Marina Circuit (which holds the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix) and the Ferrari World theme park, while the latter houses luxury resorts and the Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre Abu Dhabi.
One of Italy’s most legendary cities is actually an island in the Venetian Lagoon (one of 32), but there are so many mini islands created by its mazelike canals that 400-plus bridges are required to help pedestrians get around. Simply wandering is fun, but don’t miss 11th-century Basilica San Marco and the Venetian masterpieces in the Accademia Gallery — and hop a vaparetto to neighboring Burano, whose Crayola-hued houses are visual bliss.
Sweden’s capital is situated on 14 islands (connected by 57 bridges), where inland lakes flow into the Baltic Sea and create a harmonious blend of architecture and nature. The most historic district, known as Gamla Stan (Old Town), sits on a trio of islands and is home to the Royal Palace and the Storkyrkan (Church of St. Nicholas), while Djurgarden is a park-like island with several museums. A must-visit: The Vasa Museum, which houses a massive 17th-century wooden ship.
Quebec’s largest city is nowhere near the sea, but it is on an island in the St. Lawrence River. Here, you’ll find a modern muse of a city — home to the sophisticated Museum of Fine Arts, the bohemian dining and nightlife of the Plateau and lots of fun festivals (jazz, comedy, film) — plus Vieux-Montreal, the city’s cobblestoned historic heart. Set along the riverfront, this centuries-old neighborhood is the spot to peruse galleries, sip wine and visit spectacular Notre Dame Basilica.