America's Best Cities 2012
Many people travel to eat, others to shop, and some even to pedal.
“In Savannah, I feel like biking anywhere I want, exploring on my own, just to soak in the atmosphere,” says Baltimorean Amanda DiGiondomenico, a producer for the Travel Channel. “There’s just something very inviting about the city.”
Savannah’s carefree energy has worked its charms on countless other visitors—enough to land it among the top 10 cities in America, according to Travel + Leisure readers. In the annual America’s Favorite Cities survey, readers evaluate 35 metropolitan areas in a variety of categories that make an impression on travelers, such as which city has the widest array of hotel options, which offers the best museums, flea markets, and microbrews, and which locals are friendliest or have the sweetest accents.
When we tabulated the overall popularity results—those cities with the most top-five rankings across the 66 categories—a clear winner emerged. New Orleans scored in the top five in more than half of the survey’s categories, from fine dining, architecture, and antiques to the entertaining people-watching and its No. 1-ranked music scene. As reader Danya Powell Bushey posted to T+L on Facebook: “New Orleans is the epitome of soul: strong people and satisfying food mixed with passion-fueled tunes.”
Music also helped propel a city that might surprise you toward the top of our results. “Nashville offers a small-town feel with big-city personality,” explains Tennessean Amanda Staley, who adds that the self-named Music City “doesn’t hold the country-music-only stigma it once did.”
Indeed, Nashville was the champ for such small-town qualities as affordability and friendliness—and tied for third with New York City in the overall city rankings. The Big Apple, meanwhile, made its big impression for other reasons, winning the No. 1 slots for its theater scene and for harboring the nation’s most stylish and diverse population (why not do a little mingling at one of the local highly rated cocktail bars?).
Whatever its strong suit, each of these top-ranked destinations clearly makes its own case for a visit. Read on to find the right city for you—and share your recommendations and reactions by posting a comment below or on Twitter.
No. 1 New Orleans
The Crescent City is the ultimate crowd-pleaser: it scored in the top five in more than half of the survey’s categories. These high marks run the gamut from the quite civilized—fine dining, architecture, and antiques—to the boisterously unpretentious, such as its top-rated music scene and the colorful people-watching. As reader Larry Lovell posted to T+L on Facebook: “In New Orleans, the people are friendly, the bars have history, and the local music culture has no comparison. It’s easy to be comfortable there.”
No. 2 Santa Fe
Voters clearly don’t come to Santa Fe looking for a raucous time; it landed in the bottom 10 for its happy hours. But the No. 2 favorite outperformed most other cities when it came to cultured, mellow pursuits, such as checking out art galleries (rated No. 4), appreciating architecture, and browsing the top-rated independent shops. “Curators of Santa Fe’s boutiques are true global nomads,” reader John Clifford posted to T+L on Facebook. “They travel from Bangkok to Bali to Beirut for an international mix.”
No. 3 Nashville (tie)
Music City ranked No. 2 for both its music scene and street performers and came in third overall for a variety of welcoming, accessible qualities, from its affordability to the No. 3-rated barbecue. It won the friendly locals category (also garnering high marks for the local twang), and visitors felt the city was safe and clean. Nashville ranked No. 1 in another category that makes for a smooth travel experience: reliable wireless coverage.
No. 3 New York City (tie)
The Big Apple prides itself on being a cutting-edge nerve center, and its top-five rankings embrace that hustle-bustle: extensive mass transit, on-the-go street food, and fabulous brand-name and indie boutique shopping. “The West Village is filled with good-looking people in awesome outfits,” says PR director Catherine Littlefield. Tech consultant Michelle Ndebele favors Brooklyn neighborhoods: “I love the jewelry at Artists & Fleas in Williamsburg, while Brooklyn Flea has lots of vintage items and is fun for an afternoon stroll.”
No. 5 Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Twin Cities came across to readers as a paragon of good taste and intellect, winning the survey for both smart locals and cool home décor shops. “St. Paul has great Midcentury Modern shops,” affirmed T+L reader Nellie Debruyn on Facebook. “Several of the best—Up Six Vintage; Classic Retro at Pete’s; Succotash—are on the light-rail corridor.” And despite the fact that the Minnesota metropolis scored near the bottom of the survey for long winters, voters were undeterred, ranking it No. 1 for its great parks.
No. 6 San Diego (tie)
This sunny SoCal city has been a longtime winner in the weather category, but the city offers much more than blue skies. San Diego ranked in the top five for its pretty people, who are also the most physically fit in the U.S. The family-friendly city also made it into the top five for its burgers and ice cream. With dozens of nearby parks, such as Torrey Pines State Reserve, this is a prime destination for urban adventurers. Make the new Hotel La Jolla home base, and use its loaner bikes to explore; gastropub Tiger! Tiger! has drink specials for patrons who arrive on two wheels.
No. 6 Savannah (tie)
Readers love the Georgian city for being quaint without being too stiff: Savannah captured the No. 1 spot in the peaceful atmosphere and distinctive architecture categories, as well as for that beguiling southern accent. Locals came across as some of the friendliest in the nation—stylish, too, and proud of their city. They also know how to have fun, ranking in the top five for their happy hour. The best times to visit? Survey says in fall and around Valentine’s Day; Savannah was rated the No. 2 most romantic escape.
No. 8 Charleston (tie)
Talk about southern charm: voters love this city for its genteel shopping (No.2-rated antique stores) but also for the polite locals and their lilting accents. Readers even took that loving feeling literally, ranking Charleston No. 1 for romantic getaways, just ahead of Savannah. Perhaps it was the burgeoning food scene that gave this city the edge; it ranked No. 1 for fine dining. Take a tip from Erin Perkins, College of Charleston art director, who recommends Two Boroughs Larder. “My go-to order is the noodle bowl with all the fixings: extra pork, kimchi, pickled mushrooms—and make it spicy.”
No. 8 San Francisco (tie)
The Bay Area continues to have a lock on the serious foodie scene. It scored near the top for its fine dining, cafés, and ethnic cuisine. Voters commended the locals, meanwhile, for being stylish, diverse, tech savvy, and a bit offbeat. That certainly jives with T+L reader Tim Redmond’s impression. He posted to Facebook: “San Francisco is full of smart people who challenge traditional thinking. You won’t find intellectualism like it anywhere.”
No. 10 Chicago
The City of Big Shoulders ranked highly for living-large qualities like its tall buildings and bottomless passion for sports (or at least its No. 1-rated sports bars). Chicago also won loyalty from travelers for having a wide range of excellent hotels. And when it comes to the great pizza debate—thin crust, Neapolitan, deep dish—if Chicago’s victory for best pizza is any indication, T+L voters prefer the latter.
No. 11 Portland, OR
Locals here love their personal transportation on two wheels and their restaurants on four: the bicycle-friendly (and highly walkable) city ranked first for cool food trucks, for being environmentally aware, and for creative local microbrews like BridgePort’s Stumptown Tart beer. Portland got high marks for coffee and, as further proof of its continued hipster cred, also ranked in the top five for treasure-rich flea markets. Take advantage of the No.1-rated public transit to get to the thrice-annual Portland Expo Antique and Collectible Show.
No. 12 Austin (tie)
Perhaps voters are intrigued by the Texas capital because the residents seem to have achieved near perfection. They’re smart, quirky, and have inexplicably flat abs, according to survey results—despite also ranking No. 3 for their sauce-laden, brisket-based barbecue. And that’s not all. Austin's street food ranks among the top five and makes a great late-night snack after sampling the rollicking local music scene at, say, the iconic Continental Club or the Broken Spoke.
No. 12 Boston (tie)
Boston residents rank among the smartest and techiest in the nation, according to readers who seem enamored with the city’s nerdy vibe. Get your arts fix at the Museum of Fine Arts and the nearby Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, whose new Renzo Piano-designed wing hosts performances by visiting ensembles. Then reward yourself with some of Beantown’s lowbrow pleasures, namely the highly rated sports bars and local pizza.
No. 12 Providence (tie)
Summer’s the preferred time to visit the Rhode Island capital, which voters appreciated as a great base for day tripping to seaside communities and other New England destinations. Providence placed in the top five for six different dining categories, including cafés, pizza, and ice cream—and won the survey for the nation’s best hamburgers. Visitors were also impressed by the city’s wireless coverage (rated No. 4), which is good news for those eager to share any photos of their food adventures on social media.
No. 15 Honolulu (tie)
Readers confirmed the island city’s status as a tropical paradise, ranking it No. 1 in the weather category and near the top for both romance and idyllic outdoor spaces. Voters were so love-struck that they may have lost their appetites or wandered astray; the city got lackluster ratings in the food categories. Let a local point you in the right direction: musical theater director Joyce Mitchell-Mynar recommends the Mai Tai Bar at the Royal Hawaiian for fresh sashimi and cocktails right on the beach.
No. 15 Las Vegas (tie)
It’s an easy bet to figure out the sort of categories that Las Vegas scored well in: the best cocktail lounges, for instance, the raging singles scene, and the over-the-top shopping. “I’m not a shopper, but I could do a lot of damage at Las Vegas’s Caesars Palace,” T+L reader Angie Dorris Dycus admitted on Facebook. “I’ve seen people spend hundreds at a store all because they turned that $10 chip into $1,000,” says local publicist Marina Nicola. “If a store opens in Las Vegas, there always seems to be a superlative attached: the first, the biggest, the only.”
No. 15 Miami (tie)
The Floridians won the survey this year for the most attractive locals, who also ranked near the top for their smashing sense of style. No wonder it also grabbed the No. 1 spot for best singles scene, which heats up before nightfall. Edge Bar at the Four Seasons, for instance, serves $1 oysters with vodka pairings each afternoon. And of course, you can’t go to Miami and not eat Cuban food. The best? T+L reader Jose Fernandez vouches for Versailles, on Eighth Street. “Get the comida criolla,” he advised on Facebook. “You won’t regret it.”
No. 15 San Antonio (tie)
The home of the Alamo may have tied with Miami, Honolulu, and Vegas in overall rankings, but readers love the down-to-earth Texas city for very different reasons. It captured the No. 2 rank for best urban family vacation, no doubt thanks partially to its affordability and highly rated historic attractions. (The Riverwalk itself provides fun, free entertainment.) T+L voters also credited San Antonio for its ethnic food, starting with that great, if food-coma-inducing, Tex-Mex cuisine.
No. 19 Philadelphia (tie)
Having a good time in the city of Brotherly Love is easy, even if it’s not always pretty. The city ranked highly for its street food, sports bars, and pizza—and near the bottom for both attractive locals and tidy streets. Head indoors to appreciate Philadelphia’s artistic riches; it was rated the No. 4 cultural getaway, and the Barnes Foundation’s recent reopening in downtown is sure to raise its profile among culture hounds.
No. 19 San Juan, P.R. (tie)
Between their striking good looks (rated No. 3 most attractive) and that disarming accent, the locals in the sunny Puerto Rico capital apparently made readers blush. After ranking near the top in almost all of the food categories last year, San Juan slipped a bit this year, though it still earned top 10 accolades for its coffee, ethnic fare, and roadside cuisine. One undeniable plus: the weather. Voters loved the idea of escaping here over the winter holidays and also declared it the No. 3 city for spring break.
No. 19 Seattle (tie)
Drizzle be damned: despite ranking near the bottom for weather, the Pacific Northwest city scored well with readers for its outdoor pursuits, fit locals, and great parks, whether you like your green space with hikable trails or with art as at the Olympic Sculpture Park. Getting soggy outside, however, may just be a pretense for getting inside and downing more espresso—yet again, Seattle has the No.1-rated coffee in the nation. Pair your cup with a pastry from Café Besalu, one of writer—and frequent visitor—Gary Shteyngart’s Seattle favorites.