America's Best Cities for People-Watching
For many travelers, people-watching is the best entertainment money can’t buy, and one of the easiest ways to get a feel for a city.
Brooklynite Alisha Miranda says she likes to go sit in Manhattan’s Union Square “and just take in the crazy around me.” The freelance writer adds, “I love watching couples walking by, skateboarders, the ice cream trucks parked on the corner, and the man doing flips shirtless as people fork over spare change.”
The City That Never Sleeps, no surprise, came in near the top of the people- watching category in the 2011 edition of America’s Favorite Cities (AFC). The annual survey asks Travel + Leisure readers to rank 35 cities in 54 categories—ranging from hotels and restaurants to the general vibe of the places, such as how clean they are, how safe they feel—and how fun it is to “take in the crazy.”
Which city could possibly beat out New York in this category? When we looked at the top 20, we found that the best people-watching cities tend to have good weather and lots of room to walk around—after all, it’s harder to notice how fascinating locals are when they’re holed up in their cars.
But does ranking near the “top” for people-watching mean that a city is filled with attractive people or, frankly, odd ones? Dallas/Fort Worth, which came in last place in the category, may take some comfort in the idea that its locals are just too normal to attract many looky-loos. Savannah’s top 5 finish, on the other hand, is further proof of its southern charm: the city also landed in the top 5 for its locals’ good looks, style, and friendliness.
In the great gawkable cities, one could argue that many of the people being watched welcome it. “My favorite thing about people-watching in NYC is that flat-out staring is kind of accepted,” says media strategist Erin Scottberg. “It’s like the people you’re staring at—whether they’re glamorous, crazy, funky, or totally out there—are proud that they’ve commanded your attention.”
No. 1 New Orleans
Mardi Gras may be the Super Bowl of people-watching, but folks in the Crescent City offer a year-round visual parade for gawkers. The simultaneous winner for both its neighborhood joints and bars, New Orleans also ranks highly for its wild weekend potential, so expect plenty of southerners dolled up to catch your attention.
No. 2 Savannah
This charming Georgian city was made for leisurely strolling—it took the silver medal for its notable neighborhoods and for being pedestrian-friendly, so it’s easy to get to size up the locals as they pass by. AFC voters found the residents so friendly and tasteful that even their leftovers are worth a look: Savannah’s vintage and antique shops ranked near the top of their categories.
No. 3 Honolulu
The Hawaiian capital has a reputation for being low-key and friendly. It even won as the most relaxing destination in the AFC survey—all the better for kicking back to check out the views and the people hanging out. Honolulu may also have made the top 3 for people-watching because there aren’t many cultural distractions. It’s all about being outdoors. And here’s incentive to start up a conversation at the beach bar: Honolulu ranked No. 1 for romance.
No. 4 New York City
All the world really is a stage in the Big Apple. From Broadway shows to subway platforms, there’s always someone who’s on—it’s the No. 1 city for performance art and theater. NYC also made the top 5 for its cool neighborhoods, where you’ll spy locals with just as much personality. New Yorkers may appreciate having an audience, but don’t assume they’ll acknowledge you.
No. 5 Las Vegas
Sin City is a no-brainer for the top 5, from the flashy to the freaky—and those are just the people watching the shows. Then there are the casinos, where reading someone’s poker face is like an advanced course in people-watching. Not that the scene is always pretty: Vegas came in at a plain-Jane No. 19 in the category of attractive residents.
No. 6 San Francisco
Once upon a time, the City by the Bay was the place to check out hippies. You still may see a few, alongside every other kind of personal expression—the city won the silver medal for being diverse, and ranked No. 5 for its sense of style. Your best strategy is to pull up a chair at one of San Francisco’s hip coffee bars, and watch the locals filter in.
What is it about South Carolinians that make them so downright mesmerizing? Sure, the city ranks highly for people-watching, but the people themselves get points for being good-looking and friendly—they’re the kind you want to gawk at and get to know.
No. 8 San Diego
The annual summer ComicCon event attracts costumed sci-fi fans from around the world. During the rest of the year, you can spot a steady stream of SoCal beauties out to enjoy the city’s sunny weather as well as the super-fit carrying their surfboards across the road.
No. 9 Miami
South Beach’s infamous beach and nightlife scene attracts people who like to crank up the fun: Miami ranked No. 3 for its wild weekend potential, and No. 6 for its bar scene. Whether or not mojitos are to blame, partiers here don’t shy away from attention.
No. 10 Austin
The Texas capital cherishes its reputation for being weird and squeaked into the Top 10 based on its intriguing demographics: politicos, college kids, musicians, and all manner of hipsters. Your best bet for seeing them en masse is at bars and music clubs—both of which came in at No. 2 in the survey.
No. 11 Nashville
There are people-watching opportunities all over Nashville, from street corners to the Opry: it’s just that most of these people are strumming a guitar or belting out a Hank cover. While the locals rank near the top of the survey for being chatty, they may also be a little predictable: the city landed in the bottom 10 for diversity.
No. 12 Chicago
If you like to ogle jet-setting executives, you’ll love people-watching in the Windy City, which won the AFC survey for its business hotels. Otherwise, the city’s artistic and architectural eye-candy trounces the residents. It ranks No. 3 in the survey for its museums and No. 1 for its city views.
No. 13 Providence
The Rhode Island capital may not boast the most active locals (they ranked a sedentary No. 22), but it has plenty of appealing venues for sitting around with them: it’s in the top 5 for mom-and-pop restaurants and coffee bars.
No. 14 Los Angeles
You’d think that Tinseltown would have come in higher in the survey, with all those celebs slinking about. But we suspect part of the problem is that watchable people are too often enclosed in their cars—L.A. ranks last for being pedestrian-friendly. Staring can also come with a level of risk, and AFC readers ranked L.A. third to last for feeling safe.
No. 15 San Juan, P.R.
Maybe it’s that the island residents are so stylish or just that you get such a clear view of them: the Puerto Rican capital is No. 3 for its great weather. While cocktail hour is always a good time to check out San Juan’s see-and-be-seen crowd, the ultimate opportunity may be on New Year’s Eve. San Juan came in at No. 2 for that time of year.
No. 16 Portland, OR
This northwestern city rates well for its accomplished locals—they won as the smartest folks in America. But apparently a lively mind isn’t always enough to capture another’s gaze. Mostly outdoorsy types, they may also be whizzing by too fast on their bikes to allow for a good look.
No. 17 Santa Fe
You’ll sense a cool, artsy vibe when you touch down in Santa Fe. No wonder: The city ranks No. 1 as a cultural getaway, thanks in part to its legendary art community and its cool antique shops and indie boutiques. Folks here are pretty mellow, though, and may prefer to show off their handiwork to observers.
No. 18 Washington, D.C.
Our nation’s capital wins the AFC survey for sights: it’s No. 1 for historic monuments and No. 1 for museums and galleries. But when your eyes tire of reading plaques, it’s worth glancing around—you might see a familiar face from the news, or just a diverse, international crowd.
No. 19 Seattle
Visitors may find it fascinating how Seattle natives rarely seem to carry umbrellas, unfazed as they are by a little rain. Or maybe it’s just inspiring to see these high-minded locals recycling with such gusto: the city ranks No. 3 for being environmentally conscious.
No. 20 Denver
Set against the Rockies, the Mile High City ranks highly for its outdoor spaces, and is also home to the fittest people in the land, according to AFC voters. But you might get a better look at them—and even fit in some friendly conversation—in one of the beer-loving town’s pubs.