America's Best Coffee Cities 2011
Where can you get the best cup of java in the U.S.? Travel + Leisure’s survey names the best coffee cities.
Whenever Steve Novak is in San Francisco, he always makes time to get an espresso at the Steps of Rome Caffé in North Beach. “I’m a coffee snob,” says the owner of Honolulu-based management consultancy company PPR Management Services. “And their espresso is the gold standard.”
Like a lot of people, Novak loves seeking out coffee places when he’s traveling. A good coffee place can be like a life raft: familiar offerings, comfortable chairs, and maybe even free Wi-Fi. “I prefer the local, non-chain shops because of the variety,” Novak says, “but I just want a place to relax and get a feel for the local atmosphere, away from the tourist zones.”
No doubt, charming places like Steps of Rome helped San Francisco land in the top 3 of America’s best coffee cities, according to this year’s America’s Favorite Cities survey from Travel + Leisure.
For the survey’s past five years, readers have weighed in on the qualities—such as hotels, nightlife, friendly locals—of cities across the U.S. This year, we’ve upped the number of cities to 35 and the number of categories to 54. Readers can now evaluate, say, how eco-friendly a city is and its vintage and flea market potential, as well as its local specialties such as barbecue, burgers, and coffee bars.
Granted, when Starbucks and other chains reign in so many shopping centers and office-building lobbies, it may be hard to imagine how one city’s coffee scene is much better or different than any other anymore. But when we looked at the survey’s top 20 results, we found several towns with great historic districts that still offer a unique café culture.
Other winners boast plenty of independent coffeehouses—such as Portland, OR, which took the silver medal position. “Portland has more neighborhood places to get really good coffee than almost anywhere in the country,” says Matt Lounsbury, the director of operations for Portland-based Stumptown Coffee.
New York City and San Francisco were also in the Top 10, though their coffee cultures can be a little more fast-paced. These days you’re likely to find new coffee places that are truly bars: stools up against a counter, great for espresso lovers who just want a quick shot before they move on.
Even for coffee snobs, though, good coffee is an affordable luxury. “It’s a rare surprise to find a shop that makes a passable espresso,” says Novak. “But that’s the fun of finding new shops—to occasionally find that gem that makes me want to return.”
No. 1: Seattle
No surprise—the home of Starbucks is the mother ship for coffee-loving AFC voters. But there is more than just that familiar logo here—you’ll find plenty of indie coffeehouses all over the city, as well as espresso shacks and carts on street corners and in parking lots. All that caffeine gives the locals an edge, but in a good way: they ranked No. 2 for smartest locals in the AFC. And while colder months seem like a great time to enjoy that hot cup, the Emerald City took last place for winter visits.
No. 2: Portland,OR
Portland ranks No. 1 in the AFC for being environmentally aware: locals like their food and drink wholesome and with a local vibe. (It’s No. 1 for farmers’ markets too.) Indie coffee shops may tell you exactly where the beans came from—and one coffeehouse co-op even lets you pay whatever you deem fair. But there may be one Portland beverage that AFC voters like even more than the java: microbrews, which rank No. 1 in the survey.
No. 3: SanFrancisco
As a Top 10 cultural city in the AFC survey, the City by the Bay caters to coffee lovers with well-developed palates. Big chain Peet’s started in nearby Berkeley. Caffe Trieste and Steps of Rome in North Beach appeal to old-school types. And coffee gourmands also rave about Oakland’s Blue Bottle. In top-5 shopping mecca San Francisco, your to-go cup might even be considered a fashion accessory: the locals rank No. 5 in the survey for their sense of style.
No. 4: Providence
The capital of Rhode Island claims to be the birthplace of coffee syrup—and it’s reportedly also home to the most Dunkin’ Donuts branches per capita. But AFC voters clearly like it for the multitude of mom-and-pop-style cafés such as the legendary Coffee Exchange. Voters put Providence in the top 3 for neighborhood joints, and its locals rank in the Top 10 as the most diverse. Mix your coffee with some artsy outings—the town ranks second for its theater and performance art.
No. 5: NewYork City
The Big Apple may be the most expensive city in the survey, but coffee here can still come cheap. In the No. 1 city for diversity, the coffee offerings range from sleek stand-up espresso bars to the classic blue-and-white Greek-style cups from convenience-store bodegas. Coffee is so plentiful that people apparently have it coursing through their veins: it’s the last-place city for relaxing.
No. 6: Denver
Folks in the Mile High City might embrace their coffee due to the snowy winters—or just for fuel. This top 5 city for outdoor access has the most fit locals in the U.S., according to the AFC survey. And you can bet your cup is recyclable: Denver is the No. 2 city for being environmentally conscious.
No. 7: Savannah
No. 8: NewOrleans
In the No. 2 town for wild weekends, strong coffee is an essential—but the Crescent City takes its coffee to a level all its own. Maybe it’s that legendary chicory, or how good the coffee tastes with a beignet—but both factors no doubt helped make New Orleans the No. 1 town for cafés. If it weren’t for the great ethnic food (No. 2) and bars (No. 1), you might just sit and drink coffee all day.
No. 9: Austin
This laid-back capital city makes a priority out of brunch and plenty of down time—it ranks No. 9 for neighborhood joints and cafés. The only downside of drinking coffee here: it doesn’t always go that well with the other best local specialties: barbecue and burgers, which both ranked in the top 5 of the survey.
No. 10: Minneapolis/St.Paul
Need to warm up? Holding the last-place position for weather may have nudged the Twin Cities into the top 10. But you also won’t pay too much for your large latte. Minneapolis/St. Paul is one of the most affordable metro areas, according to AFC voters. If you want to blend in at the coffeehouses, just remember to bus yourself: the Twin Cities came in at No. 2 for cleanliness.
No. 11: Portland,ME
No. 12: SanDiego
When the temperature dips below 60 in the No. 1 city for weather, locals cram into coffee bars to warm up. Good thing you can always order your coffee iced year-round. In this city of fit, surfer types—it also ranks second for attractive and active locals—AFC voters prefer coffee to anything that might pack on the pounds, such as burgers (No. 16), pizza (No. 14), or beer (No. 18).
No. 13: Charleston
If you want a good neighborhood coffeehouse, a great place to look is this southern city, which was the AFC winner for great neighborhoods. If you’re the type to set up camp in a coffee place, you might make some nice friends too: Charleston locals are rated by AFC voters as the friendliest, most attractive people in the U.S.
No. 14: SanJuan, P.R.
The Caribbean island’s coffee beans used to be exported to European royals; today, look for the label Alto Grande, which some think is on the same level as Kona. Plenty of visitors, however, may not really know about the coffee traditions—AFC voters were more interested in the cocktail hour here (No. 4). They also put the city’s all-in-one resorts and luxury hotels in the Top 10.
No. 15: Chicago
While the Windy City made a respectable showing in the java category, AFC voters would clearly rather eat than drink here. It came in third for big-name restaurants, sixth for burgers, and first for that hardcore pizza. If you want to make the most of the city’s No. 1 views, go to the Willis Tower, where you can get your usual at Starbucks.
No. 16: Nashville
In the No. 1 city for live music, a morning cup of coffee might be just the thing after a long night of listening to the fiddle and Dobro. Given that the city ranks No. 3 for friendly locals, it might not be hard to score a bottomless cup, too. Look for one at the city’s hotels, which won the AFC survey for affordability.
No. 17: Boston
Beantown clearly doesn’t refer to the dark, roasted variety. This history-rich city (No. 4) is more famous for its association with tea. But at least no one is tossing their caffè Americanos into the harbor. AFC voters did like the city’s notable and café-friendly neighborhoods (No. 8), though they would perhaps rather toss back a microbrew (No. 8).
No. 18: Anchorage
No. 19: Washington,D.C.
In this deal-making town—its business hotels rank No. 3 in the AFC survey—those espressos certainly make the locals alert: they rank in the top 5 for being intelligent. Just be sure to order your coffee in a to-go cup: our nation’s capital ranks No. 3 for its good mass transit and being pedestrian-friendly.
No. 20: LosAngeles
In a town known for both high-end shopping (No. 4) and fine dining (No. 6), a latte with a fancy swirl in the foam will happily set you back only a little. Coffee bars are also a good spot for celeb-spotting—Santa Monica’s Urth Caffé has been an erstwhile costar in the HBO series Entourage. Just don’t expect any casual chitchat from your barista: L.A. ranks dead last for friendliness in the survey.