America’s Favorite Cities 2016
“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 traveled and sophisticated they are, the lower their expectations—and the more likely that they will be blown away.”
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. 30 Honolulu, HI
What makes the Hawaiian capital one of America's favorites? It scored well for historic sites (like Pearl Harbor and Queen Emma’s Summer Palace), and for luxury shopping—like Kalakaua Avenue’s Luxury Row, featuring Tiffany, Chanel and Gucci. For a more affordable luxury, visitors can pick up lunch from one of the Kahuku shrimp trucks on the north Shore of Oahu, like Famous Kahuku Shrimp or Giovanni’s.
No. 29 Pittsburgh, PA
The Rust Belt city was an underdog in this year’s survey, even though it offers a variety of compelling draws, like its high-rated sandwiches (say, the French-fry-and-coleslaw-topped wonders at Primanti Bros.) and its chef-driven fare, like white-truffle risotto and lamb-wrapped lamb chops at The Twisted Frenchman. Despite the city’s dreary score for weather, its art scene is weatherproof, like the epic collection at The Warhol or the cutting-edge installations at The Mattress Factory. The city also scored a top rating for its never-say-die sports fans.
No. 28 Columbus, OH
Readers scored Ohio's capital well for relaxing getaways, rather than wild weekends. That said, the college town still scored well for craft beer and bars, like the house-made brews at Barley’s Brewing Co.: come at the end of the week for Firkin Fridays, when they tap a cask-conditioned ale. Columbus also had a near-perfect score for bakeries; don’t miss longtime favorite Buckeye Donuts, where the signature has a peanut-butter core. A good time of year for visit: December, when you can see the luminaria and lights in the historic German Village, an event that helped Columbus land its high score for holiday displays.
No. 27 Boston, MA
Despite its solid ratings for culture—museums, concerts and bookstores—Boston might have landed higher in the survey had the readers not found locals to be a little rude. But thanks to attractions like the Freedom Trail, the city scored well for free attractions and family getaways. For a cool, kid-friendly place to stay, head to The Colonnade, which has a rooftop pool and is a short walk from Fenway. If you want to hang with the city’s indefatigable sports fans (who scored near the top in the survey), go to classic sports bars like Fenway’s open-year-round Bleacher Bar, with a view of center field, or Cask ’n Flagon across the street.
No. 26 San Francisco, CA
Given the city’s high rating for upscale restaurants, it no surprise that some readers found the City by the Bay to be pricey. But there are plenty of free things to do in San Francisco, many of which reflect the city’s high ranking for architecture and scenery. Walk the two labyrinths (or, on Tuesday, take a free yoga class) at the Gothic-style Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill or go to the Presidio on Thursdays between April through October, when food trucks, fire pits and live music add to the park’s views of the Bay. This year, readers actually liked the local food trucks (like the duck-centric Pluck) about as much as the haute cuisine.
No. 25 Houston, TX
Readers have long loved Houston for its indulgent cuisine, like the legendary jumbo burgers at Lankford Grocery, and the barbecue and pecan pies at Goode Co. But this year, Houston also showed it can turn it up to 11 after dark, scoring highly for its bars, nightclubs, and live music. One nice representation of all three: Nightingale Room, where you can hear dance music and acoustic acts while enjoying vintage-style cocktails (like a Nitro Cuba Libre, with dark rum and Mexican Coke). The city has bolstered its high rating for museums, thanks to openings like the newly revamped Burke Baker Planetarium at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
No. 24 Kansas City, MO
This Midwestern hub continues to master high culture and comfort food. Readers loved its barbecue, as well as its world-class art scene—like the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which is currently undergoing a big renovation. For a classic interpretations of the local burnt ends, go to Arthur Bryant’s or Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que; the latter may be found in a not-so-artistic setting (a gas station), but fans still consider it its own kind of masterpiece. The city also rated for its boutiques, like Urban Provisions, located in the East Bottoms neighborhood, which is a “modern Americana” general store offering soaps, décor, and sauces.
No. 23 Savannah, GA
The historic charm of this coastal Georgia city always beguiles readers. For a hotel with an interesting back story, stay at The Marshall House, which acted a hospital during the Civil War and boasts clawfoot tubs and a huge wrought-iron veranda. Or stay at the 56-room Cotton Sail Hotel, set in a former cotton warehouse, and whose 200-year-old heart-of-pine floors were salvaged from the old warehouse’s roof. Heading to happy hour? Sip a smoke-pickled peach bourbon at The Perch, the rooftop bar overlooking Forsyth Park. The locals, meanwhile, scored as being both friendly and easy on the eyes.
No. 22 Madison, WI
As one of the classic college towns that make the big-city top 30, the home of the University of Wisconsin excelled at carefree categories: live music (like High Noon Saloon), dive bars (The Plaza Tavern) and a thriving singles scene. When not looking for love, readers’ favorite kind of shopping in Madison was for food: in lactose-loving Wisconsin, it’s a no-brainer to check out the local artisanal cheeses at Fromagination, which offers anything from cheddar to black-truffle sheep and a category simply labeled as Stinky Cheeses. Expect a firm handshake while you’re here: the locals got perfect scores for being both friendly and athletic.
No. 21 New York City
Survey voters have long shown a complicated relationship with the Big Apple, loving its world-class theater, museums and galleries, but getting overwhelmed by fast-walking locals and high prices. Still, there are plenty of enticements: The American Museum of Natural History is having a big dinosaur year, thanks to the exhibit Dinosaurs Among Us, which details how prehistoric big boys evolved into today’s birds. Plus, readers’ favorite indulgences are actually pretty affordable: pizza (like Totonno’s, a Coney Island classic) and baked goods, like the black-and-white cookies at William Greenberg Desserts in the Plaza Hotel.
No. 20 Philadelphia, PA
Philadelphia got some brotherly love from readers for living up to its hype and then some: It scored well for being underrated (and the city’s passionate local sports fans might agree). It also performed near the top of the survey for its cradle-of-democracy architecture and rich museums, from the National Constitution Center to the Barnes Foundation and the fascinatingly creepy Eastern State Penitentiary. Despite its growing reputation for inventive dining (like vegan “street food bar” V Street, in Rittenhouse) readers still gave their highest food marks to the city’s signature cheesesteak sandwiches.
No. 19 Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN
One of readers’ least favorite things about the Twin Cities was their long-winter weather, but that still didn’t stop them from tipping their woolen hats to the cities’ outdoor spaces, like the cycle-friendly Chain of Lakes, part of the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway. Other top draws are happily indoors: browsing bookstores (like St. Paul’s Common Good Books, owned by native son Garrison Keillor), watching theater (like the Guthrie Theater, a must-see for both drama and architecture fans) and hanging with the quirky locals, at fun-loving spots like Bryant-Lake Bowl. The cities also scored highly for being warmly welcoming to LGBT travelers.
No. 18 New Orleans, LA
Readers would love the Crescent City for its legends alone, like the Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s or the jazz at Preservation Hall, but the city’s perfect score for wild weekends is proof that this city does not rest on its laurels. While readers’ favorite food group seemed to be bars, the local drinks scene is not just about hurricanes: the city is getting a bigger wine-bar scene, like Bayou Wine Garden, with 32 wines on tap. Readers also loved brunch, like the steak-and-eggs poutine at Salon by Sucre, or the eggs-and-hash hangover cure The Slammer, served at Slim Goodies on Magazine Street.
No. 17 Indianapolis, IN
The Midwestern city impressed readers by offering an affordable getaway and a welcoming place for sports fans, whether you are rooting for pro teams and college ball, or just exploring the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame. But it also ranked well for more cerebral museums: check out the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and even the lobby of the Conrad Hotel, whose collection includes Warhol and Picasso. Ironically, one of the city’s most mediocre scores was related to its locals, who rate as underachieving drivers themselves.
No. 16 Chicago, IL
Readers love sitting in an audience in Chicago, ranking the city highly for its theater and festivals—such as June’s Chicago Blues Festival, the world largest free blues fest. For your theater fix year round, you can always go to the legends like Second City or Steppenwolf, or ‘off-Loop” greats like the comedy of the Hypocrites or the musical theater from Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit. One more showstopper: the city’s high-scoring pizza, such as the old-school deep-dish at Pizzeria Uno (and offshoot Pizzeria Due) or Lou Malnati’s. Readers did rate the city a lackluster score for feeling a little noisy.
No. 15 Portland, OR
Readers still find that bearded Portland lives up to its hype, winning high marks for being pedestrian-friendly, quirky, and rich with good people-watching. Readers continue to favor Portland’s food trucks and other forms of nourishment (Portland International Airport now has its own food truck pod), and their love of the local Stumptown and Heart Roasters coffee is only slightly outranked by their love of the local craft beer. For a cutting-edge pint, go to North Portland’s experimental Labrewatory, or SE Portland’s German-themed Zoiglhaus.
No. 14 Virginia Beach, VA
This may be the biggest city in the Commonwealth, but readers still associate this iconic summer spot with beach vacations—and it rated highly for girlfriend getaways. Indeed, the city’s heart is in its three-mile boardwalk, home to the 15th Street Amusement Park, the Neptune statue and good eats like the blue crab at Catch 31. To connect with a bit of the city’s history, go see the sandstone Cape Henry Lighthouse, a project spearheaded by Alexander Hamilton in 1792. To see why the city also scored well for festivals, come in September for the city’s boardwalk blowout, the Neptune Festival.
No. 13 San Diego, CA
For such a big city, San Diego manages to maintain its mellow personality, scoring highly for being relaxing, kid-friendly, and beachy. Even its well-ranked restaurants have a laid-back attitude, like the fried chicken at Little Italy’s Crack Shack, or the new Liberty Public Market food hall, at Point Loma’s Liberty Station (which also features the craft-beer-lovers’ magnet Stone Brewing). The city takes very seriously, however, its hot-stone massages: the city got a near-perfect score for spas such as the lush, hacienda-style Rancho Valencia. The good-looking locals, meanwhile, struck readers as being, shall we say, less than geeky.
No. 12 Charleston, SC
The South Carolina city has been a consistent winner in the survey for its postcard-worthy qualities: the quaint cobblestoned streets, the lovely architecture, and the variety of charming places to stay, like the Roaring-Twenties-inspired The Spectator Hotel, or the boldly colorful Grand Bohemian Hotel, with its decadent Sunday brunch. Readers still love the sophisticated antiques shopping, but readers also ranked Charleston well for family getaways, with historic attractions like Fort Sumter (and the fun ferry ride getting there), or playing in the sand at Sullivan’s Island. The well-preserved city also got a very high score for being tidy.
No. 11 Denver, CO
The Mile High City tends to score well in the annual survey for vaguely macho qualities: sports fans, athletic locals, beer and burgers. For a refined combination of all four, go to the downtown or Cherry Creek branches of Elway’s Steakhouse, owned by a certain former NFL player, where you can get Wagyu beef or buffalo burgers, Colorado beers, and games on big screens. But readers also appreciated Denver’s sensitive side, giving it high marks for museums (like the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver) and bookstores such as The Tattered Cover, whose locations include the airport and the nicely renovated Union Station.
No. 10 Fort Worth, TX
Compared to its brash sibling city Dallas, Fort Worth has long been considered the quiet one. But its world-class art collections speak for themselves, like the Kimball Art Museum, the Western-themed Amon Carter, and the The Modern. Besides the cultural education, the city scored well with readers for its high family-vacation features—like the The Herd, the twice-daily cattle drives that you can watch for free along the Stockyards’ Exchange Avenue. Assuming you stay out of the way of the bovine crew, the city also rated highly for feeling very safe.
No. 9 Raleigh, NC
The Research Triangle city impressed readers with its bars and its brainy locals. The Raleigh Beer Garden, which opened in 2015, boasts of being the largest beer garden in the world, standing three stories high and offering nearly 400 beers on tap. You’ll find brews from Oregon, Belgium and even Tulsa, as well as plenty of local options, like Lonerider’s Shotgun Better Weissbier. If beer is not your thing, the cocktails ranked well, too: at restaurant-and-bar Death & Taxes, try the Rye Cobbler with whiskey, blackberries and mint, perhaps paired with with roasted oysters or foraged mushrooms cooked in brown butter and sherry.
No. 8 Knoxville, TN
Since Knoxville sits within swinging distance of a few barbecue regions, it makes sense it scored well in the smoked-meats category. Start your tasting tour with pulled pork at the Memphis-style Archer’s BBQ, then get some chicken, chopped pork and collard greens at Sweet P’s, followed by the St. Louis-style Ribs and Kansas-City-esque burnt ends at Dead End BBQ. The Tennessee city also impressed readers with its live music, whether it was the free lunchtime shows of bluegrass and Americana at the Knoxville Visitors Center, or shows at the city’s historic venues like the 1920s-era Tennessee Theatre and the Bijou, which dates to 1817.
No. 7. Richmond, VA
The Virginia capital got top marks in the history category, thanks to its Revolutionary War and Civil War pasts, and a high score for its art scene, from the global collection at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to the galleries along Main and Broad streets. Readers also likes its inventive fine dining (try Metzger Bar & Butchery, with its Schnitzel and Duck cooked in Riesling. For a vintage-style stay with a cheeky twist, check in at Quirk Hotel, the unabashedly pale-pink boutique hotel that’s located in a former department store; it features an art gallery in the lobby and now has a city-view bar on the roof.
No. 6 Albuquerque, NM
Readers rated Albuquerque especially well for its bakeries, such as Golden Crown Panaderia, where the loaves of the signature New Mexico Green Chile Bread are decorated with howling coyotes. But since man does not live on green-chile bread alone, Albuquerque also scored well for local beer (like the wildflower wheat at downtown’s Marble Brewery) and diners. For the latter, the Standard Diner offers comfort food such as bacon-wrapped meatloaf and country-friend ahi tuna. Readers also applauded the city for feeling like a good value.
No. 5 Nashville, TN
Music City was a no-brainer to win gold in the overall music category, and also scored nearly perfect scores for two related categories: concerts and bars. You can combine the two at Acme Feed & Seed, The 5 Spot, or the classics along Lower Broadway, like Robert’s Western World (a pioneer in the city’s longtime high standings for dive bars). Stop by Third Man Records, the studio and store owned by the White Stripes’ Jack White, which hosts a number of in-store performances. Meanwhile, one of readers’ favorite things to eat in Nashville was a sandwich—namely, the Hot Chicken served at spots like Hattie B’s or Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack.
No. 4 Norfolk, VA
Travelers clearly love a waterfront view, and this Virginia city—sitting on both the Elizabeth River and Chesapeake Bay—is loaded with them. That relaxed setting perhaps helped Norfolk get its nearly perfect score for festivals, like June’s Virginia Beer Festival, July’s Ocean View Crab & Seafood Fest, and the Mid-Summer Fantasy Festival, with its playfully edgy take on summer Shakespeare. Norfolk also rated well for museums, like The Chrysler Museum of Art, home to one of the best glass-art collections in the nation. The locals ranked as being very polite, too.
No. 3 Providence, RI
The Rhode Island capital woos travelers with hip locals, walkable streets and charming public spaces. But the city closes the deal with its wealth of edible specialties, like grilled pizza at Al Forno or Bacaro, and the java laced with sweet coffee milk (Rhode Island’s official state drink). For pastries, go to one of the three branches of Seven Stars Bakery. Providence also ranked highly for food trucks, including what could be the nation’s first restaurant on wheels (Haven Bros., which started in 1916) and newcomer MootzaDeli, offering cheesy signature sandwiches layered with prosciutto, mozzarella, olive spread, and pesto.
No. 2 San Antonio, TX
History, friendly locals, and an all-you-can-eat attitude made readers love this Texas city for more than just the Alamo. One of the city’s hot zones continues to be the Pearl, the former brewery that has turned into a complex of restaurants and bars. You can even sleep there, too, thanks to the 146-room Hotel Emma, named after the woman who ran Pearl for decades (and during Prohibition). Don’t miss the chance to eat some of the city’s best carnivore fare, like The Granary, where the brisket, sausage and ribs are served “market-style” with white bread and pickles.
No. 1 Buffalo, NY
The upstate New York city staged a huge upset this year, in part by scoring very well in one category: people think it’s been wildly underrated. Indeed, Buffalo impressed readers with everything from its affordability to its surprising, high-end dining. Go to whiskey-infused steakhouse Marble and Rye, or chef Adam Goetz’s Craving, which is lauded for inventive dishes like short ribs braised in root beer. As of this summer, the hot place to stay will be the 68-room Curtiss Hotel, in a 1913 building, which will offer the city’s first all-weather “urban hot springs.” One category where Buffalo still has room to impress readers? Its weather.