Whether they’re leaf-peepers or ghost-chasers, Travel + Leisure readers have picked America’s best cities for autumn getaways.
“There is nothing anywhere that smells like, looks like, feels like a New England autumn,” says marketing executive Janie Hoffman, who’s partial to Providence, RI. “The chill that comes in as the sun goes down, that glow when the sun hits the yellow, red, and orange leaves—it’s truly heaven on earth.”
Foliage may inspire people to get poetic, but according to Travel + Leisure readers, there’s much more to a great fall getaway than leaf peeping. In the Best Cities for Fall category—part of our annual America’s Favorite Cities survey—only two of the top 10 cities are located in foliage-rich New England, or even above the Mason-Dixon line. Readers also voted on qualities such as farmers’ markets, neighborhood cafés, theater, live music, and B&Bs. And across the fall top 20, we found plenty of cities, foliage or not, that entice visitors with good post-summer deals and balmy weather.
Which fall features made cities winners? It helps to host festivals, such as the celebrity-chef-studded Harbor Harvest Fest in Portland, ME (No. 4), or the pepper-roasting Wine & Chile Fiesta in Santa Fe (No. 9). Kansas City also made the fall top 20, perhaps because of its world-class barbecue competition and its claim to be the “haunted house capital of the world,” with amusement-park-style Halloween attractions such as The Beast. Down south in Savannah, GA, ghost-chasers start filing into town each autumn to sleep in haunted B&Bs and take thrill-raising tours.
Other travelers seek out a different kind of thrill—cheap ones—when they plan fall getaways. In Honolulu, the lull between summer vacationers and snowbirds means more elbow room on the beach, and some of the year’s best rates. It’s also humpback whale season, when the mammals migrate from Alaska to the islands to mate and give birth. In San Diego, prices dip in September and October, usually just as the weather becomes most summer-like.
But it’s not usually sun and sand that inspire folks like leaf-peeper Janie Hoffman to hit the road in autumn. According to website WeatherTrends360.com, thanks to a wet spring and despite Hurricane Irene, the nation’s best display of fall color will be, sure enough, in New England states—including Maine, whose capital city made it into the top five. Read on for all the winning cities.
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No. 1 Savannah
Savannah gets the best of both seasons as summer turns to fall: temperatures stay mild and the coming Halloween season shifts into high gear. Visitors flock here for the ghost-steeped history, taking “haunted” city tours, roaming Bonaventure Cemetery, and staying in spirit-inhabited B&Bs. Ghosts or not, Savannah also ranks highly for live people-watching, and voters appreciated the city for being affordable year round.
With summer’s humidity gone, you can take advantage of the best features of this civilized, walkable city. Quaint Charleston ranks No. 1 for its notable historic neighborhoods, stylish boutique hotels, and antique shops. Get an inside peek at locals’ style by taking one of the fall homes and gardens tours. Or tuck into country-cured hams at the Taste of Charleston food festival come mid-October.
The Rhode Island capital knows how to bridge the seasons well. Summer’s popular Waterfire—evening bonfires that line the city’s rivers—extends through October, while the blazing New England foliage lights up the daytime. Readers enjoy checking out the local theater scene, wandering through galleries, or holding down a booth at one of the many neighborhood cafés.
Gorgeous fall foliage with a side of lobster. AFC readers gave the Maine city high marks for its harvest-time farmers’ markets and the warm-you-from-the-inside microbrews—all of which you can find in droves at the Harbor Harvest Fest in October. It’s a pleasant time to stroll the cobblestoned streets of Old Port and soak up the salty air; AFC voters ranked the city No. 5 for relaxing vacations.
Coming between summer and the snowbird season, the autumn lull offers some of the best deals of the year—a huge factor in this otherwise pricey destination, according to voters. Another big draw: it’s humpback whale season, when the mammals migrate from Alaska to the islands to mate and give birth. (And why not? Honolulu is also the No. 1 city for romance and No. 2 for families.)
Music City lives up to its nickname particularly well in fall, when the city hosts a variety of music festivals devoted to folk, bluegrass, Americana, or progressive music. Voters were also charmed by the friendly locals and the cool vintage and antique shops. Nothing says welcome like a great deal too: voters crowned Nashville as the No. 1 city for affordable vacations.
September and even October may indeed be the perfect times to visit San Diego: the summer crowds have left just in time for what is often actually the warmest weather of the year. That makes it all the more enticing to take a dip in the ocean or try a surfing lesson (voters loved both the outdoors and the athletic locals). Bonus: lines are shorter at the family-friendly theme parks.
The glory of fall in this university town is based on two things: the blazing hot summer is subsiding, and college football season has finally begun. You can take your tailgating to the next level by bringing local barbecue or burgers, which ranked near the top, or just getting rowdy after the game: the live music and bar scene both ranked at No. 2.
In the No. 1 town for both cultural vacations and peace and quiet, autumn is a well-crafted feast for the senses. You’ll know that it’s green chile harvest season by the roasting smell that permeates the air (readers ranked the city in the top 10 for ethnic food). Hikers, meanwhile, love the foliage-lined Aspen Vista trail, about 14 miles from downtown. If you don’t want to venture that far, you can poke around the highly ranked art galleries, antique shops, and indie boutiques.
This is the time of year to take that “summer” vacation to the Bay area: the actual summer months are chilly and foggy, while fall tends to be warmer and sunnier. That makes it easier to walk around the hip neighborhoods, see the postcard-worthy city views, and stop in at one of the great coffee bars—all of which ranked No. 3 in the survey. Fall rates can be higher at business hotels, due to the high number of conventions in town, but voters already knew that prices here can be steep.
Autumn is the favorite time of year in this Missouri city for AFC voters, partially because of the barbecue, which AFC voters gave the silver medal. The American Royal Barbecue Festival—which claims to be the world’s largest barbecue competition—happens each September. The other big fall attractions are the city’s amusement-park-style haunted houses. At the Beast, for instance, you finish your journey by swooshing down a four-story slide. Another reason readers come back to Kansas City: its hotels ranked in the top 10 for affordability.
AFC voters love Beantown for its culture, and fall ushers in one particular form of it: Patriots fans in full bloom, and maybe even Red Sox fans still hanging in there. For a more traditional take on culture, book tickets to the outdoor Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival, or walk along the Freedom Trail, one of the great pedestrian-friendly streets, where you get a fall foliage tour along with a dose of history. Top it off with one of the local microbrews.
AFC voters applaud the Crescent City for its party atmosphere: it won the survey for bars and nightlife, and ranked No. 2 for wild weekends. Come fall, that festive vibe is channeled into actual festivals, from September’s New Orleans Burlesque Festival to the Voodoo Music Experience right before Halloween. New Orleans ranked first for its neighborhood cafés, and a little nip in the air may make those beignets and chicory coffee taste even better, too.
After the Alamo-touring family vacationers go home, the parties near the Riverwalk really get started. Beyond Oktoberfest, autumn brings the Mexican-influenced Day of the Dead, the International Accordion Festival, and November’s Wurstfest, a 10-day celebration of all things sausage. Jeans and maybe a sweatshirt are pretty much always appropriate attire: voters found the locals here to be friendly but not super-stylish.
The slopes don’t open for skiing until at least late October, so the Mile High City’s super-fit locals spend early fall hiking or biking on mountain trails. Take their cue and head outdoors to peep at the leaves, which turn at different elevations all autumn long. Be back in the city in time for October’s Great American Beer Festival—Denver ranks No. 2 for its microbrews.
All the politicos are back in town after summer recess—but better yet, the throngs of tourists have subsided. This time of year, you can get a closer view of everything at the Smithsonian and the other top-ranked museums and monuments, while being spared that oppressive summer heat. After working up an appetite, dine at the city’s restaurants around trendy U Street or its many ethnic-food joints.
Ranking in last place for winter, the Twin Cities enjoy their last hurrah in the fall. Locals and visitors make the most of the weather, soaking up fall color while hiking or biking around the lakes in the highly ranked public parks. If you start feeling a chill, you can always duck into a design shop or sit down to a Juicy Lucy–style burger.
Autumn in New York is so alluring that it inspired a jazz song. So why didn’t the Big Apple score higher in the survey? Perhaps it’s that serious leaf peepers would rather go driving and apple-picking outside town, or that overall, the city’s strengths are in its indoor pursuits: NYC ranked at the top for its theater, big-name restaurants, classical music, and museums.
The Utah city won’t come into its prime for a few more months—AFC voters ranked it No. 1 for winter—but early fall offers the chance to see bright foliage while hiking or driving along Big or Little Cottonwood Canyon. You can also get in on the first snow as the slopes open up by November. Otherwise, voters embraced the low-stress city for being exceptionally tidy, safe, and budget-friendly.
With the summer vacationers gone and the prices still low, you can more easily find an empty lounge chair at one of the city’s highly ranked all-in-one resorts. But what about hurricane season? AFC voters didn’t seem too concerned, ranking San Juan No. 3 for overall weather and No. 4 for romance, which knows no season.