Interest has been growing in recent decades about how governments learn from the experience of others, variously discussed in relation to policy transfer or ‘lesson-drawing’. During the same period, there has also been a substantial increase in the identification and promotion of ‘best practices’ in most areas of policy, including climate change. Underlying these best practices is a frequently encountered assumption that these are effective mechanisms of promoting learning amongst policy-makers and of contributing to improvements and efficiencies of policy-making and practice (Bulkeley, Environ Plan A 38(6):1029–1044, 2006). However, the reality seems to be that best practices, especially examples from afar (and from different contexts), often have only a limited role in policy-making processes: other influences are more important (Wolman and Page, Governance 15(4):477–501, 2002). This paper critically examines the use of best practices in relation to climate change, sustainability and urban policy. It begins by reviewing recent European policy documents, and examines the importance that these documents attach to the identification and dissemination of best practices. Next, the paper identifies some of the main reasons why governments have been increasingly active in developing (or claiming) innovative policies that represent best practice: reasons include image, prestige, power and funding. The paper then reviews literature on how best practices are actually viewed and used by government officials, and examines the extent to which best practices are influential in changing the direction of policy. Information from the four case study cities is then presented and compared against the findings from a similar study carried out by Wolman and Page (Governance 15(4):477–501, 2002), which tried to uncover how local policy officials found out about policy experiences of other local authorities, how they assessed this information, and the extent to which they utilised it in their own decision-making processes.