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America's Best Music Cities

Nashville, Tennessee

Alex Demyan / NewOrleansOnline.com

It’s a battle more intense than best barbecue: which city has the best music scene?

Austin, period. No competition,” says Dana Marlowe, a Washington, D.C., consultant who used to live in the Texas capital. “NYC is fantastic, L.A. is great, New Orleans rocks, Nashville kicks it ol’ school country, but Austin has them all beat. You can hear any kind of music, any day, in almost any venue.”

For the most part, Travel + Leisure readers agree. In the latest America’s Favorite Cities survey, they rated 30 cities on a wide variety of qualities: luxury hotels, coffee bars, cool neighborhoods, and even how intelligent the locals seem. When it came to live music, AFC voters ranked Austin at No. 3, right behind rhinestone-studded Nashville.

Folks in Nashville are quick to tell you, though, that Music City isn’t just about big hats and steel guitars—you can find plenty of indie rock, gospel, and even acoustic hip-hop in venues around town. “Tons of top musicians live here—Ke$ha, Robert Plant, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow,” says David Hooper, a Nashville music-business blogger. “It’s not uncommon to see folks like this get up on stage at various bars to sit in on a song. The level of musicianship is so high that you can walk into the worst place in town and see somebody good.”

Even so, to some folks in Chicago (No. 6), Nashville may still be a one-trick pony. “The music of this country wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for Chicago,” says guidebook author Gail Lecht. “While every region might be known for a particular style of music, Chicago can boast them all.”

Settle down, folks. You all have a valid point. Spending an evening listening to live music in any city is a great way to tap into its inner spirit, whether the music is on the cutting edge or just rejoicing in the past.

For a city to boost its own music scene, the key may be taking the music out of the nightclubs and into the spots where people will find it without even looking. In Austin, for instance, you can hear great live music at a number of supermarkets or at Austin-Bergstrom Airport, which offers several live-music “stages” in its terminals.

“Austin has some really great music, and we have a lot of bands,” says Nancy Coplin, the airport’s music coordinator for the past 11 years. “And for travelers, let’s face it, it’s nice to sit down, enjoy a beer, and listen to some music.”

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