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The stories behind the most colourful cities and neighbourhoods in the world

By Edited Jun 29, 2015 5 22

The most colourful cities and neighbourhoods in the world don't usually find a place on the most beautiful cities list, but their cheerful palettes of painted buildings always give tourists a reason to smile and whip out their cameras. Some of these places are World Heritage sites, some are centuries old, and some are merely the result of an individual's quirky artistic talents. Most of these places are famous travel destinations and have featured many times in photography publications, but do you know the history behind them? The following 11 places have interesting stories to go with their rainbow hues.


10. Postcard Row - San Francisco, USA

Postcard row, San Francisco - colorful cities
Postcard Row, in San Francisco, is one of the most photographed streets of the USA and has appeared numerous times in movies and TV. It is a line of six "Painted Ladies" Victorian houses built by Matthew Kavanaugh between 1892 and 1896, on Steiner Street and across from Alamo Square. Kavanaugh lived in the mansion next door to the ladies. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, many houses in the city were being built in the Victorian and Edwardian styles and painted in bright colours. It was in the 1960s, that artist Butch Kardum began to paint houses in combinations of colours to create Painted Ladies, and others followed, transforming entire streets. The term "Painted Ladies" was only coined in 1978 by writers Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen to describe the style from the colourist movement, which enhanced architectural details of houses. The Painted Ladies of Postcard Row survived the earthquake of 1906 and the demolitions of post-World Wars I and II, and is now a part of the Alamo Square Historic District, which helps in their preservation.


9. St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada

St. Johns, Newfoundland
St. John's is located on the island of Newfoundland, and is the oldest city founded by the British is North America. As it is also the continent's most easterly city, it started out as an outpost for European fishermen, with rows of buildings serving as homes to ship crewmen. When the crew returned from a fishing trip, each sailor would search for his house amongst many lining the hills. To help them identify their houses, each one was done up in different paint colours. These rows of charming houses are everywhere, and the way they line steep hills often causes comparisons with San Francisco. The locals call a row of multi-coloured houses, "Jelly Bean Row". Since the city experiences many cold and grey days, the colourful buildings help cheer everyone up.


8. Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, South Africa

Bo-Kaap, Cape Town
Bo-Kaap is a residential township in Cape Town, South Africa that was once called the Malay Quarter. The original settlers were slaves of Muslim origin from Southeast Asia, brought here by the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries. The cobbled streets are lined with brightly coloured traditional houses and a few mosques. Today, the neighbourhood is still predominantly Cape Malay with restaurants serving their cuisine, but a few outsiders have bought up properties here. The oldest building in Bo-Kaap is the Bo-Kaap Museum. The Afrikaans dialect is said to have originated here, specifically developed for the slaves.


 7. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico(97307)
Old San Juan is a small neighbourhood that lies mostly within walls on an islet just off modern day San Juan. The history of Puerto Rico dates back to the 15th century when Christopher Columbus landed there. The first settlement became Spain's main military outpost in the Caribbean but was soon shifted to Old San Juan's current location. It was only in the 20th century that the city grew beyond its walls. Old San Juan is just seven square blocks in area, but is packed with well preserved buildings from the 16th and 17th centuries and is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. The numerous plazas serve as meeting places for the locals. The streets are steep and paved with blue tinted cobblestones. The stone is adoquine, cast from the ballast of Spanish sugar-carrying ships. The weather and time gave the cobblestones their blue colour. The charming buildings are painted in every possible colour and remind you of the city's Spanish culture.


6. Wroclaw, Poland

Wroclaw, Poland(97311)
Wroclaw is a city that has been bounced round between five countries - Bohemia, Austria, Prussia, and Germany, before settling in its final resting place, Poland.  In 1945, much of the city disappeared during heavy shelling by the Soviet Union, and many of the medieval buildings there today were actually rebuilt after that period. It is a city built on a maze of canal, bridges and narrow cobblestone streets. Most of the buildings surrounding the main square, called the Rynek, are from the 14th century but had to be restored from 2 devastating fires. These have been standing since the 18th century. They are gabled burgher houses, built in Renaissance and baroque styles, with some standing on their original gothic foundations. All the buildings are in different colours of paint, reminding tourists of its artistic history and providing much needed cheer when frequent fog rolls in.


5. La Boca, Argentina

La Boca, Argentina(97313)
La Boca is a barrio, or neighbourhood, in Buenos Aires and is the city's "Little Italy", as its residents are mostly descendants from Genoa immigrants. Caminito is the main pedestrian street filled with art studios, and the entire barrio is filled with pastel-coloured buildings made of wood and corrugated steel. In the past, residents used to paint their houses from the leftover paint that ships used, but the colourful tradition continues today. This area is home to Argentina's most famous football club, Boca Juniors and was also the birthplace of the country's radical political scene.


4. Willemstad, Curacao

Willemstad, Curacao(97315)
The capital city Willemstad, lies on the island of Curacao, which is a constituent of the Netherlands. The St. Anna Bay separates its two historic quarters of Punda and Otrobanda. The former was captured by the Dutch from Spain in 1634, while the latter was founded almost a century later. These, and two other districts, all interconnected by bridges, make up a UNESCO World heritage site. There is a  beautiful harbour, and buildings are of a unique colonial Dutch architectural style mixed with Caribbean elements like porches, verandas and shutters. The buildings were not always this colourful, though. Mismatched bricks from ships' ballasts were finished with a plaster made from crushed shells that dried to a dazzling white. The governor, who was later found out to have a stake in the island's paint store, ordered the buildings to be painted in any colour but white. This tradition has endured to this day.


3. Guanajuato, Mexico

Guanajuato, Mexico(97319)
The charming hilly city of Guanajuato is the capital of a state in Mexico of the same name, and is the birthplace of the country's fight for independence from the Spanish. The city is a maze of alleyways and cobbled streets that are mostly only for pedestrians, while motorised traffic snakes through massive tunnels under the city, where a river also flows. These tunnels were originally built for flood control. The streets are lined with pastel-coloured stucco houses with balconies featuring iron work and window boxes filled with flowers. Numerous European-style plazas dot the city, unlike any other Mexican city. When indigenous tribes landed in Guanajuato, little did they know that they were sitting on the world's largest silver deposits. The Spanish discovered vast tracts and quickly built mines that accounted for 2/3 of the world's silver supplies in the 18th century. 


2. Cinque Terre, Italy

Cinque Terre, Italy
The Cinque Terre or "The Five Lands" are  five villages on a portion of the Italian Riviera. These villages, along with the rugged coastline that they lie on, are part of the Cinque Terre National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The villages lie along terraces cut into the rock of steep cliffs overlooking the sea, with vineyards and olive groves at their backdoor. Every building is painted a pastel colour, making the result look like someone threw a handful of building blocks all over the land. Cars are not allowed here, so the only way to travel from one village to the next is train, ferry or on foot. In fact the whole area is a trekker's paradise. This area became a heritage site to protect the coastline and villages from deterioration. Before 1000 A.D., the Riviera was ravaged by marauders and pirates and it was only after the rise of the cities of Venice, Genoa and Pisa, that peaceful times began. Agriculture started in the second millennium and white wine began to be produced here. 


1. Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark

Nyhavn, Copenhagen(97322)
Nyhavn or "New Haven" in Copenhagen is a small and intimate canal lined on both sides with brightly coloured buildings that today house numerous shops, bars and restaurants. Old boats are moored along the canal, and new tour boats move up and down carrying tourists. When the weather is good, many locals pack the sidewalks to enjoy an al fresco meal or drink and the atmosphere is welcoming and decidedly Scandinavian. In the  17th century, Nyhavn was a busy port and the canal was dug in 1671 to allow ships to enter and make their way through to the city's old square. The oldest house still standing dates back to 1681, but in those days the buildings were seedy strip clubs, tattoo parlours and bars. Many prominent Danes also lived there, with Hans Christian Anderson being the most famous. He lived in three different houses on the canal in the early 19th century and wrote many of his fairy tales while here.  


Special Mention: Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India

Jodhpur, Rajasthan
Jodhpur, India may not be a multi-coloured city, but it is the only city in the world that has a large area covered by buildings painted in only one colour other than white. The colour used here is indigo and the area covered is the entire old city. The colour provides a beautiful contrast to the surrounding stark desert. During feudal days, the priests of the upper caste painted their homes blue to separate them from the rest of society. The tradition still stands today, but the locals say that something in the blue paint keeps mosquitoes away.


The next time you visit one of these places, open up your travel guide, take out your camera, and walk through these colourful cities and neighbourhoods while contemplating how those that helped create them, must have been in one happy frame of mind!


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May 8, 2012 11:54am
Beautiful photos and interesting information! I love the "Painted Ladies" Victorian homes and City of Guanajuato, amazing! This is an excellent article and I hope you have submitted it for Featured Article consideration - this should be featured! Wonderful article, "Thumbs-Up!"
May 8, 2012 1:51pm
Thanks so much for your encouragement and rating! Now that you've mentioned it I think I will submit it :-)
May 8, 2012 10:19pm
Lovely images! I will send this along to my son who is an architect as he will be sure to enjoy this.
May 8, 2012 10:24pm
Thanks! I love how the colour seems to highlight the little architectural details
May 13, 2012 5:59pm
Not only do I love this article, but I love your style of writing; it very clear and concise. I particularly like the Guanajuato image, the colors just seem to be in the right spot.
May 13, 2012 9:23pm
Why thank you Shivon! Have you been to any of these places? I've only been to Copenhagen and San Francisco
May 14, 2012 3:46pm
What a wonderful article... I am always attracted to anything that has a flavour of history and mystique. Thumbs Up for a great article... Looking forward to more such amazing pieces from you
May 14, 2012 9:57pm
Thanks so much for your encouragement and rating! Yes, I too am always reading up on the history of things. When I travel I make sure to find out all I can about the place.
May 16, 2012 2:44pm
I love the photos ... nice work.

Have you seen Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, located off the west coast of Scotland? Here's an example:


Tobermory was adopted in the UK by the BBC in the children's TV programme, "Balamory".
May 17, 2012 12:52am
Thanks! My daughter loves Balamory, but I didn't know the location actually existed. Must show her this picture. She likes seeing colourful houses :)
Jun 4, 2012 2:37am
I was born in Copenhagen, so I am of course flattered that you have 'my city' as #!
- When I was a boy it was common to name the two sides of the canal: 'nice' or 'naughty'.
Your picture is showing the 'naughty' side, which even today has a restaurant in each house. However, today it isn't a 'hooker's street' for sailors.
The 'nice' side was/is residential, and it was here Hans Christian Andersen lived.
Jun 4, 2012 7:03am
I did not know that -- great piece of info there, askformore.

I betcha more fun was had on the "naughty" side than the "nice" side! for me, I will always choose to laugh with the sinners than to cry with the saints -- life's too short for anything less.
Jun 4, 2012 2:54am
Thanks for commenting! I was in Copenhagen for 3 months in 2006 and I loved it. I didn't know that it had a naughty and nice side!
Jun 4, 2012 7:04am
Your pics are truly gorgeous here, very vibrant. I gave you a thumb.
Jun 4, 2012 7:35am
Much appreciated!
Jul 9, 2012 10:04am
Wow--I loved your article, found the picture intriguing and the great subject matter uinexpected. Thanks for it all and 5 stars from me.
Jul 9, 2012 5:49pm
Thanks very much!
Jul 19, 2012 11:49am
Nice to see some colour- with the rain in the UK, everything is so drab!- Great article and makes me think about buildings and colour
Jul 19, 2012 5:47pm
Thanks for reading! Apparently Balamory is very colorful too, so you're closer than you think!
Sep 12, 2013 7:35am

Excellent depictions and terrific writing! A lot of thoughtfulness went into this. You really know your geography too. These are places I'm sure I'll never get to, but you "partially got me there!" Very interesting and colorful locations.

(I'll be slowly going thru your articles, even when it may not be a favorite subject of mine. Why? I think we should support the really excellent writers here, that aren't just "throwing things on the wall, hoping it will stick". There's too much of that.)
Sep 12, 2013 10:54am
I really appreciate your support Jeff! I agree that we should all support each other. I hope to read more of your articles soon
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