America's 20 Most Beautiful Skylines
In these cities, the sky’s the limit.
In the 130-plus years since the world’s first skyscraper—a 10-story, iron-framed structure in Chicago—was built, cities across the world have taken the concept and continued to reinvent it to create skylines so impressive, they’ve become reason enough to visit. Across the US, you’ll find skyscrapers of all shapes and sizes—although now they’re characterized less by the number of floors and more by height, meaning anything taller than 492 feet. And these high-rises are not only landmarks, they’re architectural feats. From the iconic Space Needle and Empire State Building to some of the lesser-known, statement-making skyscrapers, here are 20 of the most stunning skylines across the US.
If it’s a numbers game, Houston falls into the top three cities with the most skyscrapers in the country higher than 490 feet (with 36 of these high-rises in total). Not only is it one of the largest skylines in the US, big names like I.M. Pei (who designed the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris and East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC) and Philip Johnson (of 550 Madison Avenue in New York and the Glass House in Connecticut) are responsible for Downtown’s mix of post-modern, art deco, and Italian renaissance architecture. The Skyline District (yes, it even has its own name) is so intricate, it has its own underground system of tunnels that dip 20 feet below the city and stretch an impressive six miles, connecting 95 blocks in total.
Quick quiz: Which US city has the fourth-most buildings over 300 feet? Tulsa! Just kidding, it’s Honolulu, where the hotels, vacation condos, office buildings, and apartments that line Waikiki make for one of the most impressive skylines in America. Architecturally speaking, they’re a bunch of white blocks and don’t offer much in the way of shape or form. But with the blue ocean in front and the green mountains behind, the setting alone lands it squarely on this list.
Boston’s famous skyline is especially beautiful when viewed from the Charles River, with the modern-sleek Hancock Place nicely offsetting the Prudential Center and the golden dome of the Statehouse atop Beacon Hill. Throw in the Zakim Bridge and Custom House Tower (from other angles) and you'll definitely be nodding in approval. From the 50th floor of Prudential Tower, you really get those full panoramas, with sweeping shots of sailboats on the Charles River, Harbor Islands in the distance, and, if you’re lucky, maybe even a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.
Miami’s skyline has come a long way in the past century, growing from the low buildings huddled around Flagler Street to more than 300 high-rises and skyscrapers—which have earned Downtown’s skyline the title of third-tallest in the US. The landmark Freedom Tower, built in 1925, was the city’s first to extend taller than 200 feet, but it wasn’t until the ‘80s that Miami started its building boom with other icons like One Biscayne Tower and the Southeast Financial Center. Now, there’s a few newcomers adding a contemporary touch to the art deco architecture—like Zaha Hadid Architects’ One Thousand Museum, which was described in a PBS documentary as “one of the most complex skyscrapers ever to make it off the drawing board”—which are all best seen from a boat on the bay (or even a cruise ship in port).
You probably first became familiar with Minnestota’s skyline as the backdrop for the rooftop rendezvous in Fargo. From the river, the skyline is preceded by the 19th-century Stone Arch Bridge, and the buildings themselves are highlighted by the 57-story IDS Center, the circle-topped Capella Tower, and the cascading Wells Fargo Center. But perhaps the coolest thing about this skyline is that most of the buildings are connected by the Minneapolis Skyway System, so people can move through downtown without having to walk in the brutal Minnesota cold.
The best part of Atlanta’s skyline is that you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy it while sitting in your car, since traffic backs up in and around the city pretty much 24/7. And lovely as the triangular-topped trio of Bank of America Plaza, SunTrust Plaza, and One Atlantic Center are— not to mention the cylindrical Westin Peachtree Plaza and alluring sign for The Varsity—an hour is more time than anyone needs to spend looking at them.
OK, so Washington, DC doesn’t have a traditional skyline in the sense of towering skyscrapers and twinkling lights. But if you’ve ever driven past the Potomac at night and seen the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument lit up, it’s hard to argue that you need tall buildings to have an impressive skyline.
If there is a one-man team of American skylines, it’s St. Louis. Here, the entire skyline is unrecognizable, save for the looming, 630-foot Gateway Arch, America’s tallest monument and pretty much the only thing people know about the city that doesn’t involve baseball or beer.
Though its most iconic building looks like a superfan’s rendition of Wayne Industries World Headquarters, Music City’s skyline is almost as impressive as the neon lights on Broadway. Nashville hasn’t gone super-tall with its office towers (the AT&T Building is only 33 floors), but the buildings it does have sit nicely along the Cumberland River and make it an impressive downtown without going overboard. Much like the city itself, the skyline is understated but recognizable (even if Bob Dylan did write a whole album about it).
If you’re a fan of San Diego’s skyline, you can get terrifyingly up-close-and-personal with it any time you fly in, as jets commonly glide through downtown on their landing approach (somehow, this is OK with the FAA). The lights of the skyscrapers reflect perfectly off San Diego Bay and serve as a daily reminder of civilization for recruits at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot a few miles away.
Though the quality of its namesake chili might be a subject of hot debate (chili on spaghetti? REALLY?), you can’t debate the aesthetic beauty of the Cincinnati skyline. Start with the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, after which New York’s Brooklyn Bridge is modeled. Then, across the Ohio River, you’ll see a skyline bookended by two brand-new stadiums with a collection of architecturally distinct glass towers in between that reflect the water and the sunshine.
Kind of like its bagels and basketball team, New York's skyline is a thing of legends. It’s one of the most recognizable in America, thanks to a century of vertical growth, with standout landmarks like the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, as well as the rebuilt One World Trade Center. There’s really no bad spot to soak up the views, but we highly recommend from the 102nd floor at the One World Observatory (which takes a speedy 47 seconds to reach) for 360-degree panoramas or from one of the newest viewing platforms, Edge, which looms 100 stories above the city’s streets—and is the highest outdoor sky deck in the Western Hemisphere.
It’s hard to look at the big ball on top of Reunion Tower and not harken back to your favorite episode of Cheaters. But even if there ISN’T someone messing around on his wife at the top of the state’s second tallest observation tower, its lights—combined with the green neon of the Bank of America building—make Dallas’ skyline one of the prettiest in Texas.
Tuesday, at 9 am, is as good a time as any to gaze at the best skyline on the East Coast, where America’s fifth-largest metro area shows its size with the towering, 119-floor One and Two Liberty Place (the former stands at 945 feet). Philadelphia City Hall, though only the ninth-tallest building in town, was the tallest in the world from 1901-1908.
You already know about the three rivers that converge right at downtown Pittsburgh because watching football can be educational. But Point State Park only serves as the front for the best small-city skyline in America, where the Ft. Duquesne and Ft. Pitt bridges flank an impressive cluster of tall buildings, most notably the crown-topped One PPG Place and the spire-topped Fifth Avenue Place.
If you can catch it on a day when there’s no smog, you'll know why they named it the City of Angels. The mighty LA skyline still stands tall against the San Gabriel Mountains, with the US Bank Tower heading up an impressive tapering of 50-plus-story buildings.
Even with the plumes of fog cover, it’s hard to find a more spectacular manmade sight in the US than the Golden Gate bridge sprawling out from north of the Transamerica Pyramid. And unlike New York and Miami, San Francisco hasn’t built up out of control. This makes for some nasty rents, but this article is about skylines, not your bottom lines.
When you can combine a pyramid, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, a golden lion, and the ruins of ancient Rome—and cover it all in neon—you’re clearly doing something right. And what the Vegas skyline lacks in depth, it more than makes up for in aesthetics. You may also be surprised to learn that there are more than 160 high-rises, 40 of which tower over 400 feet. One of the best spots to soak it all up: the SkyPod and Top of the World restaurant, known for its 360-degree revolving dining room. The 1,149-foot-tall Observation Deck, at the tallest freestanding observation tower in the US, shows off sweeping shots of the Las Vegas Strip below.
Chicago, like it did with cold weather and street crime, has taken something New York does well and improved on it. Because while Chi-town built up just like NY, it managed to avoid going too crazy and maintains a skyline with shape and recognizable features. Set that on the shores of Lake Michigan, and you’ve got one of the best big city skylines in the world.
Set a bunch of architecturally distinct high-rises on a steep hill, front it with a space-age national landmark, put snow-capped Mount Rainier in the background, and set it all on the shores of Puget Sound, and you have the most breathtaking skyline in America—and not just on Seattle's six sunny days a year.