America's Best Music Cities
It’s a battle more intense than best barbecue: which city has the best music scene?
“Austin, period. No competition,” says Dana Marlowe, a Washington, D.C., consultant who used to live in the Texas capital. “NYC is fantastic, L.A. is great, New Orleans rocks, Nashville kicks it ol’ school country, but Austin has them all beat. You can hear any kind of music, any day, in almost any venue.”
For the most part, Travel + Leisure readers agree. In the latest America’s Favorite Cities survey, they rated 30 cities on a wide variety of qualities: luxury hotels, coffee bars, cool neighborhoods, and even how intelligent the locals seem. When it came to live music, AFC voters ranked Austin at No. 3, right behind rhinestone-studded Nashville.
Folks in Nashville are quick to tell you, though, that Music City isn’t just about big hats and steel guitars—you can find plenty of indie rock, gospel, and even acoustic hip-hop in venues around town. “Tons of top musicians live here—Ke$ha, Robert Plant, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow,” says David Hooper, a Nashville music-business blogger. “It’s not uncommon to see folks like this get up on stage at various bars to sit in on a song. The level of musicianship is so high that you can walk into the worst place in town and see somebody good.”
Even so, to some folks in Chicago (No. 6), Nashville may still be a one-trick pony. “The music of this country wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for Chicago,” says guidebook author Gail Lecht. “While every region might be known for a particular style of music, Chicago can boast them all.”
Settle down, folks. You all have a valid point. Spending an evening listening to live music in any city is a great way to tap into its inner spirit, whether the music is on the cutting edge or just rejoicing in the past.
For a city to boost its own music scene, the key may be taking the music out of the nightclubs and into the spots where people will find it without even looking. In Austin, for instance, you can hear great live music at a number of supermarkets or at Austin-Bergstrom Airport, which offers several live-music “stages” in its terminals.
“Austin has some really great music, and we have a lot of bands,” says Nancy Coplin, the airport’s music coordinator for the past 11 years. “And for travelers, let’s face it, it’s nice to sit down, enjoy a beer, and listen to some music.”
The New Mexico city pulled a rock-bottom hat trick on its nightlife, coming in last place for its music, cocktails, and singles scene. What should you do with an evening stretching out before you, here in the No. 1 city for peace and quiet? Hope for some late-night antique shops (No. 4) or boutiques (No. 2).
There could be a happenin’ music scene out here in the desert, but if it’s not in the hotel lobby or involves a lot of couch seating, AFC readers don’t want to hear about it. They rank Phoenix No. 2 for all-in-one resorts and No. 4 for relaxing retreats. Memo to up-and-coming bands: book your shows here in late November—Phoenix ranks No. 3 for Thanksgiving visits.
It’s just three hours up the road from Austin, but somehow the musical magic didn’t make it this far north. This city’s buttoned-down vibe extends to pretty much anything related to hipster fun: it ranks No. 29 for its cocktail hour and last for ethnic food, coffee bars, and people-watching. To hear the best up-and-coming music in the area—without going down to Austin—head to college town Denton, less than an hour north of Big D.
Don Ho and the Elvis TV special were both big a long time ago and apparently could take the islands only so far. But then, nothing about the Hawaiian capital today makes people want to stand in a club waiting for a live show. AFC readers rated Honolulu No. 1 for being both a romantic escape and a relaxing retreat. If there’s one thing less appealing than catching a live band here, it’s apparently going to the theater, which came in last.
Maybe the power brokers are too busy cutting deals to get their groove on. Our nation’s capital attracts a lot of world-music acts, as well as plenty of indie-pop and alternative groups. During the summer, the Smithsonian even spotlights world music at its free Folklife Festival. While AFC voters voted D.C. the No. 1 cultural getaway, they prefer their international flavor to come with a napkin rather than a sound check. They also voted D.C. No. 12 for ethnic food.
Does having “It’s a Small World” stuck in your head count as a “music scene”? While Orlando may have some legit live music away from its biggest attractions, the theme-park vibe doesn’t lend itself to all-night jam sessions. And, perhaps as a blow to Epcot, Orlando ranks No. 29 for being a cultural getaway.
Mellow Bob Marley has long been the unofficial patron saint of music in beachy San Diego. Likewise, AFC readers couldn’t get too fired up over anything that’s too noisy or forces them to sit inside. And why should they? It’s the No. 1 city for good weather, and No. 5 as a relaxing retreat.
While you can still see rock ’n’ roll legend Chuck Berry play local venue Blueberry Hill with some regularity, there wasn’t much else to tempt AFC readers into a musical night out here: the bar scene ranks a watered-down No. 29, and the locals No. 29 for their looks and dead last for their style.
The music scene in this South Carolina city seems to have peaked during the 1920s, when local jazz helped spawn the Charleston dance craze. Today, you’ll find more quaint inns than speakeasies—the city ranks No. 1 for its B&Bs—and perhaps an overwhelming desire to forgo any nightlife and get cozy in your inn’s antique bed. The city ranks a sleepy No. 28 for being a wild weekend destination.
You don’t have to limit your music intake to the mariachis who stroll by as you scarf down enchiladas con carne (San Antonio is the No. 5 city for ethnic food). The Alamo City’s dominant musical styles are the Mexican-folk conjunto and its more contemporary cousin Tejano. It’s a good thing both styles are crowd-pleasers: San Antonio comes in at No. 4 for family vacations.
The legendary college-music town of Athens is just a short drive away, but AFC readers don’t seem to associate Atlanta with a rockin’ night out. The highest the hub ranks in the survey is for its business hotels (No. 6) and the food and shopping (both No. 4) at Hartsfield Airport.
Sure, the Mile High City has cultivated everything from country music to jazz and even a still-thriving underground metal scene. But there’s a reason that the one song people associate with this city is John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”—most folks would rather just stay outside in the fresh air. The city ranks No. 1 as an active vacation and No. 2 for its access to the great outdoors.
Seattle has a lot of great musical ghosts—you can drive by Kurt Cobain’s last home, or go visit Jimi Hendrix’s grave just outside of town. Sound too depressing? AFC readers would perhaps prefer to spend leisure time in the Emerald City either hanging out at an espresso stand (it’s No. 2 for coffee bars) or shopping for produce (it’s No. 1 for farmers’ markets).
The Northwest city has a healthy indie rock scene, especially if you find a band performing outside during the drier months: the city ranks No. 1 in the AFC survey both for its public parks and for being walkable, and No. 2 for its active locals.
It doesn’t get the credit that New Orleans does, but many consider this midwestern city the birthplace of jazz, having given the world Count Basie and Charlie Parker. Today, you’ll find plenty of spots, such as the Majestic Steakhouse, for reliving those musical glory days, and you can do so without breaking the bank: Kansas City ranks No. 2 as America’s most affordable getaway.
Gilley’s, the Houston-area honky-tonk from Urban Cowboy, closed down years ago, but this oil town has done fine without it. It ranks No. 5 for classical music, thanks to both the Houston Symphony and the acclaimed Houston Grand Opera, known for cutting-edge productions like Nixon in China and a reinvented Hansel and Gretel.
Despite Jefferson Starship’s late-’80s claim to have built this city, San Francisco’s music scene didn’t dazzle AFC voters. Unless, that is, one can relive the city’s Summer of Love just by mingling with members of the audience. The City by the Bay’s locals rank No. 2 and No. 3 for being diverse and stylish, while its conversation-loosening cocktails come in at No. 7. That is, assuming you can swing it: it also came in at No. 27 for affordability.
The No. 3 city for history offers plenty of musical heritage too—at least from its post-1776 days. Here in Billie Holiday’s old hometown, you’ll find plenty of good jazz and blues clubs, and you can also hear music most Fridays at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Wherever you go, you might find plenty of room on the dance floor: Philly locals rank a sedentary No. 28 for being active.
To AFC readers, the capital of Rhode Island is more a theater town (No. 4) than a music town. For the best evening of music, check out the comfortable settings of the city’s neighborhood joints, which come in at No. 2 in the survey.
The college music in Cambridge is the heart of the Boston area’s music scene, even if its classical music also comes in at No. 3 on the AFC survey. Stick around after any show and you might enjoy some lively conversation too: Beantown ranks No. 3 for its intellectual locals.
The beloved Rock and Roll Hall of Fame helps Cleveland squeak into the Top 10, but another reason may be its broader definition of a great music scene: the renowned Cleveland Orchestra propels the Ohio city to the No. 2 slot for classical music. Whatever music style moves you, Cleveland is, at the very least, a cheap date: it’s the No. 1 city for affordability.
This town loves its DJ-controlled dance clubs, but if you want live and fresh, think Latin; a good bet is always Little Havana, which offers a monthly Viernes Culturales festival. Just remember that this city values looking good as much as sounding good: Miami was voted No. 1 for attractive locals and No. 2 for being stylish. And watch out on those mojitos: it ranks No. 26 for affordability.
Head to Minneapolis’s Warehouse District for the latest acts or to revisit where native son Prince got his start. It’s a great excuse to hobnob with the locals, who rank No. 1 with AFC voters for being smart. As a bonus, you might find the music clubs in the Twin Cities a little more pleasant and stress-free than those in other towns: Minneapolis/St. Paul ranks No. 1 overall for cleanliness and No. 2 for safety.
Keeping track of who’s on their way up, or maybe on their way down, is the name of the game here, whether you’re at legendary venues such as the Troubadour, or little clubs in Hollywood, or out in Silver Lake. Two big challenges: parking without laying out for a valet (L.A. comes in dead last for its mass transit and pedestrian-friendliness) and getting past the door at the velvet-rope spots (the locals rank No. 4 for their looks but a cold No. 29 for friendliness).
When a lot of New Orleans musicians headed north in the 1920s, Chicago versions of jazz and blues were born; today they still thrive alongside house music, which has its roots here, and an indie-rock scene that spawned groups like Wilco. Music fits well into an eat-drink-and-be-merry vibe here: Chicago ranks No. 2 for big-name restaurants, No. 5 for cocktails, and No. 6 as a wild weekend.
If you like to get lost in your music, come to Vegas. Whether it’s a splashy headliner like Celine Dion, or—assuming you count a turntable as a legitimate instrument—nightclubs thumping under the care of DJs, AFC voters apparently like their music on the all-consuming side. Just don’t come hoping for many Vegas-drenched symphonies or concertos. The city ranks dead last for classical music. (RIP, Liberace.)
In the No. 1 city for diverse locals, you’ll find as many kinds of music as you will people, from Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall for classical (this is the No. 1 city for it) to holes-in-the-wall all over for rock, jazz, world music, and more. The downside: as the least affordable city in the AFC survey, you’ll usually pay up for a great night of music, unless you chance upon a really great musician working a subway platform for tips.
Long considered a mother ship for indie rock and alternative country types, the Texas capital established itself nationally decades ago with the TV show Austin City Limits and then its ultrahip annual cultural festival South by Southwest. Classic venues include Antone’s, the Continental Club, and the Broken Spoke, but for the latest hot spots, ask a local: they rank among the most intelligent (No. 2), attractive (No. 5), and friendly (No. 4) in the AFC survey.
It’s the epicenter of the country music industry, where all the musicians either have a deal or are trying to get one. Walk downtown’s Lower Broadway, into the songwriter’s heaven Bluebird Café, or even into a no-name pizza joint, and you’ll hear someone playing or singing—and usually pretty darn well. And maybe because those upstarts are always looking to make nice with a record-label rep who’s out and about, the locals rank No. 1 for being friendly too.
The birthplace of jazz wins the AFC survey for its legendary music scene, which includes blues, reggae, zydeco, and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. You’ll find music everywhere: on Bourbon Street, of course, as well as nontouristed areas such as Riverbend or Frenchman Street. Music also goes great with the other things that AFC readers love about the Crescent City: it ranks No. 1 for its singles scene, cafés, wild weekend potential, and people-watching.