Exploring new cities is always a pleasure, but when those destinations are Crayola-colored and candy-striped, it’s even more of a treat. Countries around the world—from Chile to South Africa to the picturesque colonial town of Trinidad in Cuba—are home to cities that have done away with the practical in favor of the fun, whether due to a city-wide artistic streak, a cultural love of color, or a Hollywood payout.
It’s easy to spot the Venetian Island of Burano from the sea. The jewel-colored homes act like a beacon, which is what they were intended to be. According to island lore, local fisherman started painting their homes in bright colors—hues of orange, red, yellow, and purple—so they could see them while out fishing in the fog and could follow their colors back home. Now, the practice has become law, and if you live on the island and want to paint your home, you must ask for permission from the government, who will assign your home a color. For visitors, the homes are just a welcome dose of cheerfulness.
Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, South Africa
Formerly known as the Malay Quarter (named for the slaves taken from the Malaysian Archipelago), the bright buildings in Bo-Kaap stand out among Cape Town’s more traditional structures. The mosques and homes in Bo-Kaap, a historically Muslim quarter, are a dazzling rainbow of blues, fuchsia, sunshine yellows, and neon greens. While the neighborhood is one of the city’s oldest—it dates back to the 16th-century—the residents only recently started transforming their homes. It’s an expression of freedom, a celebration of Ramadan and Eid, and, perhaps, just a matter of whatever can of paint is on sale.
The dazzling colors that adorn the capital city of this Caribbean island stem from an unlikely source—headaches. According to local lore, back in the 1800s the governor of the Dutch colony decided that the color white caused his migraines. He issued a decree that buildings could be painted anything but white. Today, this jewel-colored city is an almost perfectly preserved Dutch colonial trading settlement with a UNESCO World Heritage designation.
India’s Blue City, tucked into the Western state of Rajasthan, is a colorful reminder of India’s caste system. In the past, Brahmins, the so-called upper class, painted their homes in the royal hue of blue to differentiate their properties from those of the lower class. Over time, others just mirrored the effect. Even the city’s Mehrangarh Fort got a solid coat of blue. Many suspect the color is now popular for a number of reasons—including tradition. The blue paint’s chemical composition might be a good defense against termites, the color keeps dwellings cool in the blazing sun, and the vivid color is downright beautiful.
La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Caminito, the city’s famed kaleidoscopic street, sits on the edge of the Riachuelo River. As whimsical as the area is, its fanciful facade has a very practical explanation: the homes were built from scraps from the local shipyard and painted with whatever leftover paint was available. Today, the vivid block of color brightens the working class neighborhood and has made it a tourist destination for visitors from across the globe.
Located in the central Cuban province of Sancti Spíritus, the buildings in the 16th-century city of Trinidad reflect the natural environment—sugarcane green, ocean blue, and sunshine yellow—sometimes all mixed together on the same building. The UNESCO World Heritage site was built by money made largely from the heinous slave trade, and the resulting Afro-Cuban culture is represented in the colorful streets. Highlights include the old San Francisco Convent, the Palacio Brunet, and the Palacio Cantero.
Balat, Istanbul, Turkey
Balat—the Jewish quarter of Istanbul since the Byzantine era—is a patchwork quilt of red, blue, and green buildings piled on top of each other. Over time, the neighborhood has become a destination for design-savvy tourists and visitors in town for the Istanbul Design Biennial. Everyone is eager to walk the mazelike streets lined by brilliantly hued buildings and the clutch of new boutiques, cafes, and galleries.
Pelourinho, Salvador, Brazil
Salvador’s Pelourinho neighborhood bears the name of the Portuguese word for pillory, and was home to the first slave market on the continent. When slavery was outlawed in 1835, the city began to crumble. But in 1985, Pelourinho was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the neighborhood began the slow process of rebuilding. Now, Pelourinho’s culture is as vibrant as its facades, and tourists from Brazil and the far reaches of the world flock to the historical center for food, dancing, and the Museu Afro-Brasileiro.
Rainbow Row, Charleston, South Carolina
The Easter egg-colored row homes near Charleston’s historic waterfront have stood proudly since the late 1700’s, surviving the Civil War and the reconstruction. Local lore suggests the pastel-colored exteriors made it easy for drunk sailors to recognize their guest house, while others suggest shops used the hues as a form of advertising. Today, the jasmine-fringed Georgian homes between 83 and 107 East Bay Street are synonymous with the popular Southern city.
While many of the world’s most colorful towns and cities have historic reasons for their varied hues, Júzcar has a much more modern explanation—Hollywood. In 2011, Sony Pictures executives asked the Andalusian enclave if they could paint the town blue as a publicity stunt for those famous blue cartoons, the Smurfs. When The Smurfs 3D movie promotional blitz was over, Sony offered to restore the town back to its iconic pueblo blanco. The residents of Júzcar, however, had gotten used to the tourists (and their euros) and voted to keep the city blue. It now has the distinction of being the only Smurf village in the world (that we know of) and the town hosts regular tours and events—some related to mushrooms, for which the area is known, and which both Smurfs and Spaniards love.
Even Chile’s poet-in-chief Pablo Neruda couldn’t help but tout the charms of the city where he once lived. The city’s historic seaport center is now recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site and hidden behind the vibrant, mismatched, and occasionally clashing façades are clubs, restaurants, and shops for every interest. Street artists now contribute their own flair, and are quickly turning the streets (and even the funicular) into outdoor galleries.
St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada
Perhaps the most notable feature of the provincial capital of Newfoundland and Labrador is the row of colorful Victorian homes that runs through downtown. Called “jellybean houses” due to their wild red, blue, yellow, and green hues, the houses fill St. John’s with splashes of whimsy. Most of the homes are done with tasteful white trim, but others opt for a bit of discord with the color schemes. The colors began to appear in the 1970s, and many suspect this was done to cheer up a declining urban center. Whatever the origin, the homes are a bright spark on the island, particularly when the gray days of winter set in.