America’s Favorite Towns 2016
Three important things draw Daniel Howard to Park City: History, wildlife, and rooftop bars.
“I like the no-chain-store ambience along Main Street, and the mining-era legacy of its buildings,” says Howard, who works for the Four Seasons Biltmore Resort in Santa Barbara. “And, I like seeing moose walking through the town.” His favorite perch to watch either people or antlered creatures is the rooftop bar at the No Name Saloon. “It’s the best place to take in the crowds below,” he says. “While still being above it all and yet under the radar—just like Park City.”
Even though the Utah ski town is increasingly associated with its star-studded film festival each winter, the combination of sophisticated hangouts and small town charm has made it a top-ten favorite of Travel+Leisure readers.
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 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. Among the top 30 winning towns (which have populations under 100,000), a few high-scoring categories came up time and again: friendly residents, a relaxing ambience, and a wealth of little indulgences, like bakeries, burgers, and wine bars.
Some towns charmed travelers with their mix of quirky qualities. “With just one stroll through downtown Asheville on a Saturday night, we were able to window-shop handcrafted art, sip high-end cocktails, and stumble into a full-moon drum circle in Pritchard Park” says Arizona native Laine Strutton. “It’s probably one of the most eclectic towns in America.”
Read on for more about this year’s winners, and to see who ranked where.
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 Sedona, AZ
This Arizona town scored highly for its red-rock-lined parks, such as the hike-friendly areas around Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, or Oak Creek Canyon. They’re all known for mystical vortexes of energy—which might explain how the town also scored well for free attractions. Readers also liked Sedona’s galleries and boutiques—namely, the art and jewelry found along Highway 89A, or in the Mexican-style arts and crafts market Tlaquepaque (say it “t-lockey-pockey”). For a different kind of spiritual energy, enjoy some of the town’s high-scoring coffee, like the single-origin brews from Indian Gardens Café in Oak Creek Canyon.
No. 29 Hilton Head, SC
This South Carolina island scored well for families, beach vacations, and adventure—even if many preferred visitors’ form of adventure is perfecting their golf swing. That may explain, in part, the good score for peace and quiet, as well as the sleepy score for nightlife. When it came to dining, Hilton Head scored well for high-end cuisine (like longtime favorite Charlie’s L’Etoile Verte), but it scored even better for its supply of Carolina barbecue, such as the pulled pork at Bullies BBQ or The Smokehouse. The locals also got a top score for offering friendly Southern hospitality.
No. 28 Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA
The posh little town on California’s Central Coast got perfect scores for both romance and natural scenery: after all, those rocks and crashing waves offer a perfect backdrop for professions of love. Nothing says “I love you” quite like a croissant or an éclair, either, which may be why the town also scored well for bakeries, like the French-style Lafayette and the Carmel Bakery and Coffee House, which first opened in 1899. For a romantic stay, check in at the newly opened, 27-room Hotel Carmel (the former Dolphin Inn), with cottage-style décor and fireplaces in the room.
No. 27 Naples, FL
This southwest Florida town ranked for being quiet, safe, and relaxing. Plus, it scored perfectly for two non-stressful activities—boutique shopping (like the galleries and shops along Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South) and spas. A great choice for head-to-toe indulgence: the Ritz-Carlton Naples, where treatments include the Organic Warmed Spiced Mud Wrap. If you come with the kids—the town ranked highly for families—stay at the La Playa Golf & Beach Resort, which is set on a secluded stretch of sand, and has a kids’ club to keep the little ones occupied.
No. 26 Key West, FL
The iconic Florida city scored low in the luxury category, but most people wouldn’t have it any other way. The four-mile island secured a high score for its museums (like the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, manned by six-toed cats) and a perfect score for dive bars—such as the 72-square-foot Smallest Bar, or the Green Parrot, where a misspelled sign warns patrons, “No Snivelling.” Key West also got perfect scores for its singles scene and for engrossing people watching.
No. 25 Duluth, MN
The college town along Lake Superior scored highly for its waterfront outdoor spaces—like Canal Park, which borders the Aerial Lift Bridge. The great outdoors can also be appreciated from inside a car: take the Highway 61 drive along the lake and granite cliffs, and stop at the New Scenic Café, where the locally sourced, European-influenced menu can mean escargot bourguignon, cassoulet with duck confit, and lemon-and-lavender cake. The locals are not too pretentious, though. They scored highly for being friendly, and beer is a favorite beverage. For another edifying tour, follow the Duluth Beer Trail, which covers 10 local breweries.
No. 24 Laguna Beach, CA
This Orange County beach town got top marks for its art scene, which includes the string of posh galleries along the Pacific Coast Highway. But no doubt that rating also reflects summer’s famous Pageant of the Masters Festival, which recreates famous works of art with living participants. The town also did well in the survey for its notable dining, like the Modern-French-meets-California cuisine at The Studio, located at the arts-and-crafts-style Montage at Laguna Beach, and supplied in part by the resort’s large herb-and-vegetable garden.
No. 23 Charlottesville, VA
Readers may have been disappointed that they didn’t find more rowdy happy hours in this college town: the home of the University of Virginia didn’t score as highly as some of its collegiate peers for dive bars or affordability. It did, however, score well for high-minded diversions like bookstores (don’t miss New Dominion, the oldest indie bookstore in the state) and the notable local wine. You can taste Chards, Cabernet Franc, and more made on the third president’s former lands at Jefferson Vineyards; another well-regarded winery, Blenheim Vineyard, is owned by present-day local Dave Matthews.
No. 22 Santa Barbara, CA
The city has long been called the American Riviera for its postcard-worthy coastline, red-tiled roofs, and refined European ambience. It achieved a perfect score for its wine, which you can sample in tasting rooms around downtown, like Municipal Winemakers and the Valley Project. Even though the city didn’t score well for being a bargain, there are plenty of low-cost ways to experience the local culture, like exploring the 18th-century Santa Barbara Mission, strolling the Tuesday Farmers Market on State Street, or eating tacos at what was once Julia Child’s favorite, La Super Rica Taqueria.
No. 21 Newport, RI
Thanks to the mansions along the Cliff Walk, and the hotels that have their own pedigrees (like the Vanderbilt Grace Hotel, built as a summer home in 1909), this Rhode Island enclave impressed readers with its history, stately architecture, and looky-loo people watching. It also ranked high for its festivals, like May’s Oyster Festival and July’s Newport Folk and Jazz festivals. Readers’ favorite meal here was a polished brunch, like the lobster omelets and cranberry-pecan French toast at White Horse Tavern: the two-story restaurant dates to 1673 and was even managed, at one point during the early 1700s, by an actual pirate.
No. 20 Williamsburg, VA
The Colonial-magic home of Jamestown achieved perfect scores in the history and museum categories, and also impressed readers for seeming, despite the centuries-old heritage, quite tidy. Readers particularly loved shopping here, whether it was for rare and used volumes at Mermaid Books, heirloom seeds and 18th century plantings at Colonial Nursery, or even legit petticoats at Mary Dickinson Shop. Readers also gave the bakeries high marks, like the gingerbread at Raleigh Tavern Bake Shop. Other than a good sugar high, the town rated well with readers for keeping things mellow: it ranked near the bottom for wild weekends.
No. 19 Aspen, CO
This posh town may have turned in a low score in the affordability category, but that is probably one part of the reason that readers love it: the skiing and hotels are top-notch, and the people watching perhaps even better (the locals scored as both gorgeous and well-dressed). Aspen also earned high scores for fine dining and wine, like the fondue and raclette at the truly over-the-top Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro (located at nearly 11,000 feet), or The Little Nell’s renowned Element 47, which has more than 20,000 wines in its collection. The town lives up to its hype: Survey voters declared that Aspen is not at all over-rated.
No. 18 Red River, NM
This ski town near Taos has a bit of a Wild West past, and it still knows how to have a good time: it ranked well for adventure trips, bars, and live music. Hook up with Bobcat Pass Wildcat Adventures and you can take ATV tours in the summer, or go snowmobiling in the winter in Kit Carson National Forest. Year round, you can soak up the cowboy ambience at Bull O the Woods Saloon, which has been around since 1939. Today it serves half-pound, green-chile cheeseburgers and showcases honky-tonk-style bands. And just like real cowboys, the locals came off as a little quirky.
No. 17 Sanibel Island, FL
This little island west of Fort Meyers scored highly as a beach vacation and family getaway, but it enhanced both of those standings by getting a perfect score for free things to do. Indeed, the most popular thing to do here costs nothing: browsing the multitudes of seashells (there are reportedly 200 different kinds) on the beaches, an action known as the Sanibel Stoop. (For one of the widest selections, go to Bowman’s Beach.) The island also ranked well for affordable cuisine: diner fare, like the grouper sandwiches and key lime pie at local favorite Jerry’s.
No. 16 Durango, CO
This Western town got perfect scores for both adventure and chilling out—like, say, skiing at Purgatory or exploring the cave dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. Or, you can just stare out the window on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which winds through the San Juan National Forest. To experience the town’s perfect score for beer, take the Durango Brew Train tour, which focuses on local breweries, or stop in at Steamworks Brewing Co., the local brewpub offering beers such as the Colorado Kolsch, a cousin of the light-and-crisp German beer. The fresh air seems to be invigorating: the locals ranked well as hotties.
No. 15 Cape May, NJ
Readers gave this town at the tip of the Jersey Shore perfect scores for its Victorian architecture and charming boutiques. Even though Cape May also earned a top score for beach vacations, one of the best times to come here is well after sandcastle season: the town also ranked well for Christmas visits, when Washington Street Mall gets decked out in lights and greenery. The home décor shops impressed readers, too. To acquire a piece of Victorian charm for your own home, browse the lamps, mantels and accents at the Antique Doorknob.
No. 14 Pigeon Forge, TN
To a lot of readers, a certain larger-than-life country icon put this Smoky Mountain town on the map. Indeed, it scored well in the survey for its family-vacation potential and for its concerts, like the big names (recently, Loretta Lynn) who come through the Country Tonite Theatre. Perhaps because folks are always on the lookout for a Dolly sighting—or maybe because enough fans bring their fashion-and-hair A game—the town ranked near the top for interesting people-watching. Readers also applauded Pigeon Forge for its genuinely down-to-earth qualities, like the wildflowers and waterfalls at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
No. 13 La Jolla, CA
This coastal enclave makes readers want to slow down and linger, whether it’s over a brunch with an ocean view at Brockton Villa or browsing the lineup of heavy-hitting luxury shops. La Jolla also impressed readers with its cocktails, like the Sea3 at George’s Level 2, a mango-and-chile-infused concoction cooled by a frozen Sea Cube, with seaweed suspended inside. To immerse yourself in ocean ambience in a different way, experience La Jolla’s perfect score for spas: The Spa at the Lodge at Torrey Pines offers skin treatments with foaming seaweed, and the resort looks out over windswept, pine-dotted bluffs.
No. 12 Sarasota, FL
This artsy Florida town has long wooed travelers with its festive ambience: after all, it was founded by a circus mogul. Today, you can see why Sarasota’s art scene scored near the top by strolling the galleries along Palm and Main Street, or exploring the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. The museum, also founded by the circus impresario, is home to vintage circus posters as well Old Masters, Asian art, and contemporary American art. Sarasota also impressed readers on two ends of the dining spectrum, like the French Maison Blanche, or one of the 50 big sandwiches (like the Balkan Express on pumpernickel) available at the Main Bar.
No. 11 Sonoma, CA
The nerve center for this wine country region beguiles readers not just with its vino, but also for its folksy charm, like the picnic tables and rope swings at laidback Scribe Winery. Indeed, despite the high likelihood of encountering a wine snob while you’re here, readers found the locals friendly. One of readers’ favorite foods was pretty unfussy (and no doubt goes well with a Cab): pizza, like the New-Haven-style pies at the Red Grape. The town also ranked well for seasonal festivals, like September’s Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, and its Christmas lights (don’t miss the the illuminated century-old sycamore at Fairmont Mission Inn).
No. 10 Asheville, NC
Readers love this Blue Ridge Mountain town for its earnestly hipster heart, found in the downtown drum circles and the well-thought-out Carolina barbecue—like the pulled pork and barbecue tempeh at Luella’s Bar-B-Que, or the locally sourced meats at Buxton Hall, helmed by two James Beard nominees. The city also ranked high for its live music scene—from the street buskers around town to the Isis Restaurant and Music Hall, a rehabbed art deco movie theater that now presents bluegrass, jazz, and singer-songwriters, along with dinners of Carolina Mountain trout or curried apple bourbon quail. The locals meanwhile, ranked as delightfully quirky.
No. 9 Traverse City, MI
This town on the northeastern side of Lake Michigan holds a perfect score in the romance category, no doubt enhanced by its near-perfect score for natural beauty. You can swoon through the 7.4-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, along the lake, dunes and forest, or hike in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. To cap it off, stay at Chateau Chantal, a European-style inn with an on-site winery and cherry orchard. To make the most of the town’s status as the tart-cherry capital of the world, come in July for the National Cherry Festival. The town also scored high for family getaways.
No. 8 Staunton, VA
The town at Milepost Zero on the Blue Ridge Parkway made the top 10 in part by embracing a classical approach to the arts: summer brings the renowned (and Baroque- inclined) Staunton Music Festival, and year-round one can go to the Blackfriars Playhouse, a replica of Shakespeare’s indoor theater. You can even take home a piece of the past: Staunton scored well for its antique stores like Once Upon a Time Clockshop and other shops along West Beverley. The best way to ingratiate yourself to the friendly locals? Pronounce the town’s name correctly (say it Stan-ton, not stawn-ton).
No. 7 Portland, ME
Readers continue to be captivated by this Maine city’s charm, from the Old Port’s cobblestone streets to longtime foodie magnets like Fore Street and Allagash Brewing Co. This year, the city also scored well for one throwback feature: cool bookstores like Longfellow Books, which offers new and used books as well as an in-store cat. To sleep in a literate environs, stay at the Press Hotel, the boutique hotel located in the old Gannett Building, where Maine’s Portland Press Herald used to be published, and where rooms come with vintage desks. Assuming you are not working on any deadlines yourself, the town also ranked high for feeling relaxing.
No. 6 Harrisonburg, VA
Readers loved this university town in the Shenandoah Valley for those collegiate qualities that don’t require cracking any books: it ranked well for both beer and burgers. To find the two together in harmony, go to Jack Brown’s Joint, which has 100 craft beers on tap and Wagyu-beef burgers topped with Applewood smoked bacon or house-made mac ’n’ cheese. To focus on the beer alone, don’t miss Three Notch’d Brewing, which has such historically inspired brews as the 40 Mile IPA (related to a piece of Jeffersonian lore) and the No Veto English Brown Ale, a nod to Patrick “Give Me Liberty” Henry.
No. 5 Atlantic City, NJ
The Jersey Shore’s casino city may not have resonated with readers for its high culture, but it did score well for throwing a party: it scored near the top for nightclubs (like the new Premier Nightclub, at the Borgata) and wild weekends. Readers also embraced its dining scene, from the old-school Italian at the hidden-away Chef Vola’s to such simple pleasures as the epic salami submarines at White House Subs on Arctic Avenue, which dates to 1946. And for those late nights, the city also rated highly for its vivid people-watching.
No. 4 St. Augustine, FL
Readers loved the unique beaches (like the maritime-forested Anastasia State Park Beach), the colorful shopping (like the vials of mysterious water sold at Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park), and the distinctly unsnobby locals. Readers were also charmed by both the specialty markets, like the Old City Farmers Market (on Saturday mornings at the St. Augustine Amphitheater), or the vodka, rum, gin, or whiskey made at St. Augustine Distillery, set in a former ice-manufacturing plant.
No. 3 Santa Fe, NM
Not surprisingly, the New Mexico city ranked near the top of this year’s survey for its art scene, thanks to the galleries along Canyon Road and institutions like the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. It also ranked well for history—like its San Miguel Chapel, the nation’s oldest church, and even its restaurants, like Geronimo, set in an adobe home that dates to 1756. Its lounge offers the opportunity to try the city’s most famous local crop in a creative way: the Norteño margarita is made with Hatch-green-chile-infused tequila, then shaken with an orange liqueur. After a few, you might see why the city also got high marks for its peaceful vibes.
No. 2 Provincetown, MA
This Cape Cod town achieved perfect scores both for beach getaways and romance—and scored almost as well for being LGBT-friendly. But even if you just came with your BFFs (it also ranked well for girlfriend getaways), the town seems to excel in liquid diets: it ranked especially well for bars and coffee. Happy hour favorite Victor’s, for instance, offers pink champagne and hibiscus martinis to go with its raw bar; caffeinated types might prefer Wired Puppy, where the Single Cup Brew Bar offers a choice of pour-overs, siphon, and Chemex.
No. 1 Park City, UT
Outdoor bliss meets artistic street cred: America’s winning town offers snow, sunshine, and a good chance of celeb-spotting. Readers gave the city near-perfect marks for its weather and for its festivals—thanks in part, no doubt, to winter’s Sundance Film Festival. Since Utah has relaxed its liquor laws over the years, Park City also scored well with readers for wine. Choose from the extensive wine list at Glitretind, at Stein Eriksen Lodge, or the long list of bottles at the new Main Street hotspot Tupelo, whose artisanal menu includes such delights as Rocky Mountain Elk Bolognese.