Can clean be overrated? America’s dirtiest cities happen to include some very popular tourist destinations.
How do you define a city’s soul? For a lot of travelers, it’s in the dirt.
Atlanta ad exec Patrick Scullin, for instance, loves Baltimore—but not because it’s particularly pristine. “Yes, there’s litter, smokers, and graffiti,” he says, “but that’s just life going on. The air sometimes offends, but a cool breeze off the harbor can ease all worries. It’s a gem of a city.”
While such sentiments don’t appear in tourist brochures, that glorious grit has landed Baltimore in the Top 10 dirtiest cities, as chosen by Travel + Leisure readers in the annual America’s Favorite Cities survey. Of course, visitors gauge “dirty” in a variety of ways: litter, air pollution, even the taste of local tap water.
This year’s American State Litter Scorecard, published by advocacy group the American Society for Public Administration, put both Nevada and Louisiana in the bottom five—echoing the assessment of T+L readers who ranked Las Vegas and New Orleans among America’s dirtiest cities.
Likewise, the American Lung Association releases an annual State of the Air report, listing cities with the least (and most) pollution. Not surprisingly, Los Angeles fared poorly again this year—but so did Phoenix, which T+L readers actually ranked among the top 15 “cleanest.”
It just goes to show that for casual visitors, passing judgment on a city’s dirt factor is pretty subjective—and may even have a lot to do with a general vibe. Many of the cities that ranked poorly in the AFC survey also tanked when it came to environmental awareness, nice public parks, or pedestrian-friendly streets.
On the bright side, those same dirty cities also offer a lot of, well, atmosphere. Memphis, Las Vegas, and Miami ranked highly for having great bar scenes, live music, or quirky people-watching.
So while no one would dissuade a city from doing some renovations or stepping up its recycling, there is something to be said for a little disheveled charm. “I love New York City because it’s not pristine,” says Kaamna Bhojwani-Dhawan, founder of family travel site MomAboard. “It’s a city that has never shunned a chance to fully experience life—and it has the scars to prove it.”
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No. 1 NewOrleans
Can you imagine the cleanup required after Mardi Gras? Both tourists and Mother Nature have sometimes been hard on the Crescent City, which readers voted the dirtiest in America. But that doesn’t stop the good times from rolling on. Voters embraced the city’s fun-loving spirit, ranking New Orleans first for its nightlife and eclectic people-watching.
The City of Brotherly Love was voted the fourth dirtiest city last year and just narrowly avoided the top slot for sloppy this time around. The locals may not be helping with those first impressions—they ranked near the bottom of the style category, as well as in the bottom five for being environmentally aware.
That infamous rep for smog is tough to shake: the City of Angels, which is No. 3 for the second year in a row, continues to do poorly in national air-quality tests. AFC voters also put traffic-clogged Los Angeles in last place for being pedestrian-friendly and in the bottom three for overall quality of life.
Nothing is tidy about barbecue or the blues, two of Memphis’s biggest tourist draws. This city on the banks of The Big Muddy has more to work on than dirtiness; it came in last place in the AFC for being environmentally friendly, as well as for feeling safe.
Last year’s dirtiest city is looking a little fresher these days. But AFC voters seem to champion New York because of its less-than-sterile vibe, and not in spite of it. There’s world-class culture, cool neighborhoods, and diverse locals. Just be prepared to pay for it: NYC ranked as the most expensive city in the nation.
The Inner Harbor is a crowd-pleaser, but AFC voters weren’t impressed by Charm City’s overall cleanliness or its more land-based features. Baltimore came in next-to-last place for its public parks, hotels, and even interesting people.
This is the No. 1 town for wild weekends, so it’s no surprise that Vegas makes it into the Top 10 for dirty disarray. Impressively, Sin City has actually improved its standing by two slots since last year. And if you’re willing to splurge, any semblance of grittiness may disappear: Vegas scored No. 1 for luxury hotels and No. 2 for both luxury shopping and big-name restaurants.
AFC voters loved Miami’s bar scene and its upscale dining, but all that hoopla takes its toll on a person—and on a city. AFC voters ranked the Florida hot spot poorly not only for cleanliness but for safety.
Many cities that made the dirtiest Top 10 scored well for having a vivid nightlife, cool neighborhoods, or great live music. Alas, Atlanta couldn’t claim any of those in the survey. At least the city has its quality—and sloppy—barbecue going for it.
This oil town could stand a green makeover, according to AFC voters. Its cleanliness score worsened by four spots since last year. The general vibe left AFC voters wanting, too. They ranked Houston near the bottom for its parks and weather. The city’s collective ego can take great pride in one thing: it topped the AFC charts for its juicy (and no doubt messy) burgers.
Some people find the feral cats roaming the streets of Old San Juan an unsanitary nuisance, but other travelers think it adds to the island city’s charm. Whatever your definition of dirty, if you want a pristine experience, you’ll do fine back in your guest room: San Juan ranks in the top 5 for its all-in-one resorts.
“Don’t Mess with Texas” has been the statewide litter campaign for 25 years, but folks in Big D still have room for improvement, according to voters. AFC voters preferred Dallas’s more sanitary indoor pursuits: luxury shopping and browsing for home décor.
Go to Fenway Park when the Red Sox win and you’ll hear the old song “Dirty Water,” about the pollution in Boston Harbor and the Charles River. But Beantown has still managed to improve its cleanliness score by two spots since last year. AFC voters also gave the city props for the finer things: classical music, museums, and a well-crafted beer.
Our nation’s capital is trying to clean up its act. Starting this summer, pedestrians can be fined $75 for littering. Perhaps voters also find political talk toxic: they ranked the city in the bottom 10 for peace and quiet. Otherwise, AFC voters gave high marks to the city’s mass transit, walkable streets, and museums.
So what if the Alamo isn’t spotless? It may be part of this Texas city’s casual approach. According to AFC voters, the locals come off as affable, even if they’re not particularly stylish or athletic. AFC voters were also quite comfortable with the city’s affordable hotels and great ethnic food.
Everyone knows that kids make a mess—perhaps that’s Orlando’s excuse for why its cleanliness score hasn’t budged since last year. It’s the survey’s No. 1 city for families. At least you know your hotel will offer some relief: Orlando won the AFC survey for all-in-one resorts.
The Windy City inched up three notches for cleanliness since last year, but it could still use a little more tidying. If you want to avoid the clutter, just look up, not down: Chicago ranked No. 1 for its skyline views.
For better or worse, this Missouri city didn’t get into the dirty top 20 for throwing crazy parties. KC’s fans perhaps love the down-home, no-nonsense nature of the city: voters turned out for the barbecue and the deals—the city came in third for its affordability.
Most AFC voters see this Alaskan city only in the summer, when tourists arrive en masse—and perhaps make a mess. Clean or not, the city tends to get upstaged by its beautiful natural backdrop. Anchorage ranked No. 12 for its public parks and No. 9 for its dramatic mountain and water views.