America's Most Beautiful Neighborhoods
Urban planner Jeff Soule remembers the moment he fully appreciated the beauty of Baltimore’s Charles Village. He was leading a tour through tree-lined streets of cheery row houses when it started to pour. “I was with 20 visiting Chinese mayors, and there was this wonderful African American woman—not only did she invite everyone up on her porch, but she made them all lemonade.”
Eye-catching design and green spaces go a long way toward making a neighborhood attractive, but the most beautiful neighborhoods are also enriched by this kind of welcoming community spirit. And they tend to resonate with American history, whether recalling a bygone way of life (the South of Broad area of Charleston) or acting as an open-air museum that showcases the work of iconic architects.
Chicago’s Oak Park, for instance, counts 23 of Frank Lloyd Wright’s modestly elegant, low-slung buildings, but the Americana runs even deeper: 90 percent of the neighborhood is classified as a historic district. No resident is more than two blocks from a bikeway, and the neighborhood is easily reached on the El train.
Some modern developers strive to manufacture an instant neighborhood-y feel and to create the kind of pastiche that a gorgeous, lived-in neighborhood possesses naturally. But Soule, director of outreach for the American Planning Association, says he hasn’t found many areas developed in the last 25 years that tick all the boxes: “A lot of newer neighborhoods haven’t stood the test of time yet.”
Fledgling and struggling neighborhoods alike can look to the Paseo in Oklahoma City as a success story. This artists’ colony of Spanish Revival 1920s bungalows was marred by mid-century gang violence. But unfazed artists moved in, taking advantage of low property values, and eventually brought the neighborhood back to a state of homey, charming bohemianism—just two miles from downtown.
Accessibility and authenticity are valued as much by travelers as by prospective residents. After all, making a detour to one of these beautiful neighborhoods isn’t just visually pleasing—it can reveal a city at its most genuine. You may not be offered free lemonade, but you may still want to move in tomorrow.
Brooklyn Heights, New York City
The storied Brooklyn Bridge, an American beauty itself, sets its eastern granite foot in this neighborhood made beautiful by brownstones and regal prewar condos on leafy streets, some named for fruit. Generations of literati (Thomas Wolfe, Walt Whitman, Truman Capote) have flocked to Brooklyn Heights, and more than 600 houses date to before the Civil War—surpassing better-known areas in Philadelphia and D.C. Visitors’ most memorable snapshots of the Manhattan skyline are taken from its sunset-soaking waterfront esplanade.
Garden District, New Orleans
When you think of the good life in the South—mint juleps on the veranda, gingerbread iron detailing, heavy subtropical shade trees—you’re thinking of the Garden District around St. Charles Avenue, where streetcars trundle by (fare still $1.25). A slight elevation has protected these mansions from hurricane devastation for nearly 200 years. Certainly a wealthy enclave, where the four-diamond Commander’s Palace is considered the local eatery, the district is by no means homogenous; its Orthodox Anshe Sfard synagogue, with 1926 electric light fittings, was founded by Lithuanian Jews. Don’t miss Lafayette Cemetery, a 180-year-old reliquary of spectacular aboveground vaults.
Pacific Heights, San Francisco
For many visitors, San Francisco is synonymous with the Hollywood-ready “Painted Ladies”—by definition a Victorian wood home gussied up with at least three paint colors—and this hilltop area has the city’s highest concentration. The Heights preserves the city much as it was before the quake and fire of 1906, and Victorian Home Walk’s daily tours provide context for your architectural exploration. A walking tour of this privileged district also guarantees gorgeous panoramas of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the Bay.
The Paseo, Oklahoma City
Some beautiful neighborhoods are also worth celebrating as success stories. Once a thriving artists’ colony of Spanish Revival 1920s bungalows, by mid-century The Paseo, two miles north of downtown, was plagued by gang warfare and prostitution. Unfazed, artists moved in, taking advantage of low property values, and brought things back to a state of homey bohemianism—with plenty of eye candy. Nearly 20 galleries, two schools for creative students, and an annual arts festival inspired Forbes to name it one of “America’s most transformed neighborhoods.” Where home values are dropping elsewhere, in the Paseo, they’re going up, without forsaking that unique pioneer Oklahoma culture.
South of Broad in Charleston
Savannah’s cobbled Historic District corners the market on ghost tours and manicured squares, but Charleston’s mansard-rich sister offers it-happened-here Dixie lore and is noticeably less touristy and at least as beautiful. Visitors stroll block after block of corniced brick multilevel buildings graced by canopies of Spanish moss, palm trees, and flowering gardens. These 300-year-old merchants’ homes retain a West Indies influence, notable in the south-facing porches designed to catch sea breezes. The secession of the Confederacy was hatched in this neighborhood’s parlors, and the Civil War’s first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, within sight of the bedroom windows.
Hancock Park, Los Angeles
Tourists are shooed away from the opulence of Beverly Hills by tall hedges and locked gates, but the 1,200 homes of Hancock Park form a rare L.A. enclave that invites exploration. The landmarked Hollywood sign is visible from many streets, where the range of styles and fine construction evoke the boom days of the 1920s. Case in point: the Queen Anne–style Higgins-Verbeck-Hirsch House, at 637 South Lucerne, was trucked here in June 1924—while 100 high-society guests partied inside. Stars such as Nat King Cole, Kathy Bates, and Patricia Heaton have helped the community keep its luster despite a westward march of real estate trendiness.
Oak Park, Western Chicago
It’s not just about the modest elegance of Frank Lloyd Wright, although he designed or built 23 structures in Oak Park, including his own studio. The Americana runs deeper here. Fully 90 percent of this 97-block village—conveniently tethered to downtown Chicago by a 15-minute ride on the El—is classified as a historic district that ranges from Prairie School (80 examples) to the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway. Walking past the lawns and low-pitched homes is pleasure enough, but the local government also sweetens the suburban paradise with a cycle system that puts no resident more than two blocks from a bikeway.
Charles Village, North-Central Baltimore
It’s green with trees, painted in sprightly colors, and atypically blends turn-of-the-century, Baltimore-style row houses with yards and wide boulevards. In short, it’s an inner-city neighborhood you could fall in love with. “Early in the city’s history, they separated the ownership of the land under the house from the cost of the house,” explains Jeff Soule of the American Planning Association. That small levy on property values “was almost like an early affordable housing program.” The resulting mix of civically active residents—from blue-collar to students—supports live theater, shopping, the enviable Waverly Farmers’ Market, and a museum with the largest Matisse collection on earth.
Back Bay, Boston
The Back Bay encompasses so much that is Bostonian that tourists could visit only it and feel as if they know Beantown. Reclaimed from waterways in the 1880s, it’s the city in microcosm—touristically, if not demographically, speaking—with skyscrapers (I. M. Pei’s John Hancock at Copley Square), fine stone Victorian dwellings with distinctive bay windows, shopping avenues (upscale-artsy Newbury Street), and name-brand hotels. Visitors can even eat “chowdah” at Legal Sea Foods and rummage through bargain bins at Filene’s Basement without departing the confines of America’s brownstone heaven.
Montrose is Texas, eclectically: rents are affordable, yet the 16-block neighborhood is rich in tradition. Howard Hughes grew up in a brick mansion at 3921 Yoakum Street, now part of the University of St. Thomas, and LBJ’s former three-bedroom Victorian home complete with porch swing went on the market in 2011 for just $425,000. The Arts and Crafts bungalows, patio houses, and galleries attract a gay community that strives to keep that Main Street America feeling. Even the dogs are allowed to run free in Ervan Chew Park. “You don’t think of Houston as a city of neighborhoods, but actually it is,” says Jeff Soule of the American Planning Association. “They’re just surrounded by big highways.”