America’s Geekiest Cities 2016
“All the hot girls wear glasses,” observes a character in IFC’s hit sketch comedy show, "Portlandia." And in the Oregon city that "Portlandia" so bitingly mocks, residents hang out in feminist bookstores and peruse artisanal knot stores. Despite the satire, "Portlandia" does touch on a certain geeky quality (a Pedalpalooza bike festival, real-life feminist bookstores) that locals legitimately love.
And, unsurprisingly, Portland’s inherent nerdiness landed it squarely on this year’s list of the geekiest cities in the United States.
While the definition of “geeky” is open to interpretation, Travel + Leisure readers showed a clear preference for cities with vibrant student communities, a plethora of comic book shops, and community-supported Comic Con festivals.
In the annual America's Favorite Places 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 T+L's World's Best Awards, which encourage 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.
From popular college towns to major tech and startup communities, these are the best places in the country to get your geek on.
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.
No. 15 Kansas City, Missouri
Alongside Kansas City’s booming music and arts scene, a nerdy undercurrent has gradually gained mainstream acceptance. Need proof? The city’s 17th Planet Comicon hit 70,000 attendees last year, growing from a small gathering of fans to one of the country’s largest pop culture and comic book conventions.
T+L readers appreciate Kansas City’s geekiness, which can be experienced at the local Legoland’s popular adults-only nights, or weekly trivia evenings around town. Another must-see spot is the River Market’s Arabia Steamboat Museum, which contains the country’s largest collection of pre-Civil War artifacts.
No. 14 Richmond, Virginia
Richmond is famous as a center for law and finance, and its suited-up residents can be delightfully nerdy. Find them on West Cary Street. Here, One Eyed Jacques sells board and card games as well as discs for Frisbee golf. The shop also hosts game nights, where locals swing by for rounds of Dungeons & Dragons.
Down the street, Chop Suey is a used and rare book store that stocks thousands of titles across its two floors. Directly in between them is World of Mirth, a self-described “alternative toy store,” offering the next generation of geeks educational toys that encourage them to think outside the box.
No. 13 Raleigh, North Carolina
As the largest city in North Carolina’s Research Triangle—anchored by UNC Chapel Hill, Duke University, and NC State—Raleigh is home to a rapidly growing population of brainiacs. They show off their nerdy side at comic book shops like Fight or Flight comics, or at the popular Boxcar Bar + Arcade: a Warehouse District spot serving two dozen beers on draft and over 70 arcade games, including air hockey, skeeball, pinball machines, and Ms. Pac-Man. Not content to travel the half hour to Durham’s annual fandom convention, Raleigh puts on its own as well.
No. 12 San Francisco, California
It’s hard to tell what came first in San Francisco, the tech companies or their techie employees. They’re both present in large numbers: Twitter, Weebly, Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, and (nerd alert!) Reddit have headquarters in town, employing tens of thousands of people.
Out of the office, you’ll find proudly geeky San Franciscans at places like The Interval. It’s a cafe-meets-cocktail bar attached to the Long Now Foundation, an organization that fosters innovators to think in the long term. Another sure spot to interact with creative locals is Brewcade, a well-named bar with 21 arcade games and more than two-dozen craft beers on draft.
No. 11 Salt Lake City, Utah
When Salt Lake City hosted its first Comic Con in 2013, more than 100,000 people attended, shattering records for largest first year attendance of a fandom convention, and for the largest convention ever in Utah.
Other annual festivals keep geeky locals busy, including an anime festival, a nearby renaissance fair, a zombie parade, a Harry Potter run, and Salt City Steamfest (a celebration of 19th century mechanics, complete with role playing games and DIY workshops).
No. 10 Denver, Colorado
T+L readers head to the Mile High City to ski, to drink craft beer, and to get geeky. They make a beeline to Enchanted Grounds (just south of the city in Highlands Ranch) for artisan roasted coffee alongside games, comics, and cards. The café hosts game nights nearly every day of the week and also produces its own podcast, detailing what’s new in the comic and gaming worlds.
Another popular stop is 1Up Arcade, a retro bar with pinball machines, Skeeball lanes, and other classic games. This is also where locals head to play Giant Jenga and drink any of the dozen-plus beers on tap.
No. 9 Boston, Massachusetts
Beantown has been a center for smarties since its earliest days, home to the country’s first public school, first printing press, first newspaper, and first college (a little university named Harvard). Almost 400 years later, the city is still a creative hub. It was here that the Nerd Nite bar lecture series started, with the slogan “Be There and Be Square.” Nerd Nites now occur in 80 other cities, including most of the winners on this list. Meet the next generation of Boston’s brightest at Brew, in the city’s Innovation District, where dangling Edison bulbs remind cappuccino sippers that many great “aha!” moments started with coffee.
No. 8 Wilmington, North Carolina
On the coast of North Carolina, this popular filming location for TV cult favorites "One Tree Hill" and "Dawson’s Creek" attracts thousands of super-fans each year. But T+L readers think the locals themselves are just as geeky.
Get in on the town’s nerd culture at stores like Nerdvana Comix: a downtown shop for comic books, board games, and movie memorabilia. Another must-see stop is Cape Fear Games, midway to the beach from town. The store is Wilmington’s top location for playing group table games, either with friends or in organized tournaments.
No. 7 Austin, Texas
Back in 2000, a local radio host pledged to “Keep Austin Weird,” coining a phrase that has become an unofficial slogan for Austinites ever since. Luckily, it’s worked, and T+L readers think the Texan capital is one of America’s best cities for geek culture.
Austin has a jam-packed calendar of festivals that promote all things indie, quirky, and offbeat, including SXSW, Austin City Limits, and Eeyore’s Birthday (a whimsical celebration of A.A. Milne’s beloved character). And for comic book readers and gamers, Dragon’s Lair Comics and Fantasy is Austin’s one-stop-shop for comics, graphic novels, role playing games, and Dungeons & Dragons meetups.
No. 6 Detroit, Michigan
Creative types are returning to Detroit in droves, and are a driving force in the city’s continuing revival. T+L readers have noticed, and voted Motor City one of America’s best places for geeks.
Multiple gaming shops keep locals entertained, while the Michigan Science Center is one of the Midwest’s premier educational museums, with hands-on exhibits, an IMAX theater, and a planetarium. In November, Anime fans take over the city during Youmacon. The annual convention celebrates Japanese pop culture, with cosplay events and panels.
No. 5 Sacramento, California
Students at Sacramento State and nearby UC Davis help bring out Sacramento’s nerdy side, showing up for weekly game nights at stores like Big Brother Comics (Wednesdays for board games, Fridays for Magic: The Gathering). The shop’s original location burned down last year, but it’s back by popular demand with a new store downtown.
Empire’s Comics Vault is another favorite shop, hosting community events—cookie bakes, art showcases, live music—and attracting the dog lovers with Rolly Polly and Captain Dylan Hunt, the resident store pugs. Sacramento also hosts an outpost of the Wizard World Comic Con, seeing over 20,000 fans attend each year.
No. 4 Seattle, Washington
The Emerald City has long had a soft spot for nerdiness. For evidence, head to Golden Age Comics, in the famous Pike Place Market. It’s the country’s oldest comic book store, and has been serving the local community with comics, manga, toys, and games since 1971.
Visitors should also check out the Roosevelt neighborhood’s Wayward Coffee, where dozens of community groups—including gamers, coders, knitters, and fiction writers—meet regularly. Another important stop is the Museum of Pop Culture, inside a massive Frank Gehry-designed complex next to the Space Needle, with exhibits on rock music, fantasy films, and the portrayal of aliens over the decades.
No. 3 Portland, Oregon
Taking the bronze in this year’s survey, Portland is a longtime haven for offbeat characters. After Austin coined “Keep Austin Weird,” Portlandians quickly adopted the phrase for their own city, vowing to preserve Portland’s unique character. Where else could a guy dressed like Darth Vader ride around town on a unicycle playing the bagpipes?
Beyond the unipiper, Portland’s streets have more nerdy charm on view with the Horse Project. Locals tether miniature plastic toys to antique metal rings—formerly used for real horses in the 19th century—as a reminder of the city’s past. It all seems straight out of an episode of "Portlandia."
No. 2 Madison, Wisconsin
Grad students at the University of Wisconsin gave Madison a leg up in this year’s survey, and T+L readers named the Wisconsin capitol the country’s second geekiest city.
Sector67 (a collaborative space founded in 2010 that invites gadget-loving tinkerers to share 3-D printers and laser cutters) is now planning to move to a huge warehouse. Unsurprisingly, the local fan convention Geek.Con has also ballooned in popularity, nearly doubling since 2008.
The State Street Halloween Party may be the only quirky event to have shrunken in size, reaching a riotous peak of over 100,000 attendees before the city took control a decade ago.
No. 1 Providence, Rhode Island
T+L readers give Providence big points for its residents’ geekiness, placing it in the top spot on this year’s list. Home to both Brown University—a quirky Ivy League gem—as well as the Rhode Island School of Design—one of the nation’s leading art and design schools—the city certainly fosters its creative side.
Rhode Island Comic Con consistently draws Sci-Fi, superhero, and comic-book A-Listers like Marvel icon Stan Lee, "Wonder Woman" Gal Gadot, and "Star Trek" legend George Takei. When the celebrities aren’t in town, locals head to Temple Games, in nearby Pawtucket, to play rounds of card, board, and strategy games at communal tables.