Hannah Bjorndal loves seeing the green, hilly landscape of Knoxville—but she also loves a clear view to a parking spot.
“I was extremely surprised by the natural beauty of Knoxville,” says the Washington, D.C., wedding photographer, who recently visited the Tennessee city. “It has beautiful variation, instead of a typical flat, grid-like city, and it’s a friendly, inviting place.” Indeed, she adds, “You can park for free in the downtown garages on weekends.”
It was that kind of brass-tacks ease that helped Knoxville make the top 10 among big cities this year in Travel+ Leisure’s America’s Favorite Places survey. In the annual survey, readers of all stripes evaluate hundreds of cities and towns across a range of categories, from the friendliness of the locals to the quality of the pizza. Unlike Travel + Leisure's World's Best Awards, which encourages readers to weigh in on travel experiences across the globe, the America's Favorite Places survey is a way for locals to share what their hometowns do best.
This year’s big-city winners (with populations of more than 100,000) produced several upsets—in part, perhaps, thanks to the influx of new contenders (Knoxville was one of five debuts in the top 10). But readers increasingly gave props to cities that have put their local stamp on such crowd-pleasers as craft beers, burger joints, and indie bookstores. Plus, “sleeper cities” like Knoxville offer one big advantage over some past winners: they tend to feel more affordable.
Many of them have long been underrated, too. “I’ve seen Buffalo go from being called Rust Belt to pronounced near dead,” says Judi Griggs, a Houston marketing exec who grew up in the western New York contender. But lately, Buffalo has been buzzing with life, from the Canalside District, dotted with a restaurants and its huge rink (where, during winter, you can even rent ice bicycles) to the RiverWorks project, set to open a big craft brewery. “I love to bring west coast and European friends back to my town,” says Griggs. “The more travelled and sophisticated they are, the lower their expectations—and the more likely that they will be blown away.”
The nitty-gritty: Travel + Leisure’s America’s Favorite Places survey opened on 10/8/2015 and closed on 04/15/2016. It was open to everyone, and ran alongside a sweepstakes. The open-response survey asked respondents to submit their favorite place and rate it in over 65 categories, including affordability, notable restaurants, and public parks. Cities are defined as governed bodies with a population over 100,000. After discarding incomplete ballots and cities that received less than 20 votes, each entry was ranked according to an average score.