America’s 20 Most Charming Cities 2015
To find the heart of New York City, you need the right shoes.
“I always seek out a city's charms on foot,” says Rachel Rudwall, co-creator of the travel series How 2 Travelers. In the Big Apple, she says, walking gives her the thrill of “moving through a sea of people who are drastically different from one another, yet all working to make a life in the city,” while in Charleston, “every main street, alleyway and market feels as though it holds centuries of stories.”
Travel + Leisure readers would agree, placing both New York City and Charleston in the top 10 of uniquely charming cities. In this year’s America’s Favorite Cities survey, readers voted on dozens of features that make 38 cities special, from museums to bakeries and flea markets. To highlight the most bewitching cities, we combined the rankings for interesting architecture, pedestrian-friendly streets, quaint bookstores, a sense of history and a friendly atmosphere—and nice wine bars didn’t hurt, either.
Several winners had one thing in common: old neighborhoods that have found new life, with cobblestone streets as well as cool shops and little cafes. Otherwise, in some winning cities, charm means easy access to public art, or food truck pods where locals gather around the fire pit with guitars. One cozy city even has a self-proclaimed “snuggery.”
With most the winners, too, those walkable streets are key—assuming you stray off the tourist grid. Barri Bronston, author of Walking New Orleans, advises Crescent City visitors to do Bourbon Street once—then move on. “Take the Bywater neighborhood,” she says, “with its houses painted in vibrant purples, oranges, and blues. Until I walked its streets, I had no idea how cool it really was. I’m a life-long resident of New Orleans, but I always feel like I’m discovering something new.”
No. 20 Baltimore
The town that dubbed itself Charm City—granted, as a long-ago marketing strategy—clearly has planted its flag in the charming top 20. (That flag may be a freak flag, though: the locals also made the top 10 for being offbeat.) Baltimore also scored in the top 10 for historic appeal—like Fell’s Point, the waterfront community that that was once the nation’s second-largest immigration point, after Ellis Island. To experience the neighborhood to the fullest, stay at boutique hotel Admiral Fell Inn (once the home of the Seamen’s YMCA) and enjoy one the city’s highly ranked dive bars, The Horse You Came In On—which was likely a dive even when it first opened in 1775.
No. 19 Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh’s most charming area does not ignore the Rust Belt’s industrial roots—instead, it embraces it. Just north of downtown, the Strip District was once the home of Andrew Carnegie’s first mills as well as the nerve center of the city’s produce markets. Today, it’s the home of the Pittsburgh Public Market, Pittsburgh Opera and the modern-dance Attack Theatre. The city also ranked at No. 6 for its pizza, like the classic Neapolitan at Il Pizzaiolo in Market Square and downtown’s Proper Brick Oven and Tap Room. Charming or not, the locals won the survey for being the most enthusiastic sports fans.
No. 18 Seattle
Even if it’s a first stop for many tourists, nothing exudes the charm of Seattle—and can make you feel like a flowers-and-fruit-buying local—quite like wandering the 9-acre Pike Place Market. But a block or so away from the market’s salmon-tossing workers, the charm factor compounds on Post Alley; the brick-paved detour features spots like The Pink Door, which serves candlelit Italian cuisine and quirky live shows like Eastern European jazz and trapeze acts. Seattle also came in at No. 2 for its coffee: one of the most relaxing places to enjoy it is at the café in the Elliott Bay Book Store, where you can also see why the charmingly rainy city ranked at No. 3 for its bookstores.
No. 17 Cleveland
Forget the old jokes about this industrial town, which has elegantly cultivated its old-school charms. The nerve center of its appeal is in the Victorian-era Tremont neighborhood, once settled by immigrants and now home to Prosperity Social Club, a lounge set in a former ballroom, which has craft beer, Polka music and pierogies. To embrace the city’s civic pride, pick up a t-shirt that reads “Buck Yes” or “I Liked Cleveland Before It Was Cool” at downtown’s CLE Clothing.
No. 16 Atlanta
Readers love Atlanta for deftly walking the line between historic charm and buzz-worthy cool. You’ll find both at the Swan House in Buckhead's Atlanta History Center: you can chat with costumed character guides at the 1920s mansion’s Open House tours—or, you can take its Capitol Tour, and see how the house was used in the film The Hunger Games. The Georgia hub also worked its way into readers’ hearts by way of their stomachs, ranking at No. 2 for Southern-comfort diners: At Buckhead’s old-style Highland Bakery, for instance, you can tuck into both sweet-potato pancakes and sweet-potato biscuits. Another heartwarming touch: at downtown’s Mary Mac’s Tea Room, the hostess still offers free back rubs at your table.
No. 15 Philadelphia
Quaint streets all over the U.S. don’t have much on Elfreth's Alley, the tiny cobblestone road in Philly that boasts of being the oldest continuously lived-on street in the nation (you can tour the old homes once a year, on June’s Fete Day). Beyond that one street, though, the cradle of democracy gets high marks from readers for being both historic and pleasantly accessible—like the Society Hill and the Rittenhouse areas, offering gracefully restored lodgings like Rittenhouse 1715. Even some newer places can’t resist a little old-style appeal—like Random Tea Room in the Northern Liberties area, which features a Curiosity Shop of antiques alongside a 21st-century massage room.
No. 14 Albuquerque
The New Mexico city made the top 10 for festivals, thanks to lovely parties like October’s International Balloon Fiesta. But this farm-friendly town also wooed readers with its literal cornucopia of edible delights: Casa Rondeña Winery, for instance, has wine-growing roots that go back to the 1600s. For down-to-earth lodging, stay at the 25-acre Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm, whose crops include lavender, casaba melons and endangered Chimaya chilies. The city also ranked near the top for being affably kooky, like Albuquerque Alpacas’ charming sweaters, socks and dyed yarns (as well as plenty of live, fleece-producing alpacas).
No. 13 Nashville
Music City’s magnetism comes in part from its people: it ranked at the top of the survey for friendly locals. But its revamped older neighborhoods let this city of music-industry high rollers keeps its homey vibe. In the 12 South neighborhood, for instance, you can wander the bungalow-lined streets, browse in boutiques like White’s Mercantile (offering such down-home delights as locally sourced grits and biscuit mix) or sit at coffeehouse-and-wine-bar Frothy Monkey, where you can sip your Merlot from a quaint jelly jar. 12 South is also home to some of the city’s highly ranked barbecue: Edley's Bar-B-Que, which smokes its brisket and ribs using local White Oak wood.
No. 12 Houston
The quaint factor in this giant business hub may not be immediately obvious, but voters still applauded the city on a variety of civilized features, from its top-ranked gourmet groceries, like Revival Market, to museums like the soothing Rothko Chapel. To get a sense of the city from earlier (and smaller) times, go to the Historic Heights neighborhood, which is filled with homes from the 1800s, some lovely inns (like the restored, Queen Anne-style Sara’s Inn on the Boulevard) and cheeky establishments like Mighty Sweet Mini Pies and Alice’s Tall Texan (where a 20-ounce Lone Star beer, served in a frosty goblet, goes for just $2.50). Indeed, the Texas city also ranked in the top 10 for both bakeries and brews.
No. 11 San Francisco
The City by the Bay can be one giant photo op, with such iconic charmers as the Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars, and Alamo Square’s Painted Ladies. But if you want to spend a charming afternoon alongside the gourmand locals, browse the stalls at the Ferry Building Marketplace and its Saturday farmers market, or, sit at Caffe Trieste with a classic cappuccino and see why, even before the thoughtfully-made pour-overs of Blue Bottle and Ritual Roasters, the city has always been a winner for its coffee culture. Despite its chilly summers, San Francisco also made the top 20 for weather—proof that rolling fog offers plenty of atmospheric charm.
No. 10 NYC
Sure, the metropolis can seem intimidating—survey voters ranked the locals as both stylish and rude. But the Big Apple still made the top 10 thanks to its small wonders. Take, for instance, this spring’s new exhibit of sculptures, “Drifting in Daylight,” in Central Park, or New York’s timeless collection of little worlds unto themselves, like the chock-a-block shops of Chinatown, the Russian community in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, or the cobblestone streets and galleries of Soho. Readers ranked NYC in the top 3 for a number of irresistible shopping categories, like the books of the Strand, and the unique housewares at ABC Carpet and Home. NYC also won the survey for its art scene, and even locals still swoon over the Old Masters at The Frick Collection, housed in a 19th century manse on the Upper East Side.
No. 9 Kansas City
The Missouri city likely made the charming top 10 in part for its interesting slice of Americana: the Hallmark empire began here—quaintly, with some postcards being sold out of a shoe box—and you can explore that past at the free Hallmark Visitors Center. One of Hallmark’s neighbors is The American, the restaurant that James Beard helped open during the 1970s, which cemented the city’s good standings in the survey for chef-driven restaurants. Meanwhile, the “Fountain City”—where you can do walking tours of the 200-plus registered water features—also made the top 10 for its lovely architecture. Those water sounds are clearly soothing: the city won the silver medal for its peace and quiet.
No. 8 Chicago
The Windy City ranked highly in the survey for such affection-producing features as its architecture and its extensive mass transit. Those trains nicely connecting Chicago’s most strollable communities, like the Victorian-era Old Town, which is also an easy walk to Lincoln Park. Old Town is home to some of the city’s most classic features, like Second City (Chicago ranked at No. 6 for theater), the classic dive-bar Old Town Ale House, and Twin Anchors, which was reportedly Frank Sinatra’s favorite barbecue. Finding a cozy place to hang out can be key in Chicago: the city ranked next to last for its weather.
No. 7 Boston
The hometown of the American Revolution got big points for its commitment to historic buildings and highbrow culture, like the Handel & Haydn Society and the city’s Public Art Walk. You can experience a one-two-punch of the city’s quaint charm at the Beacon Hill Hotel and Bistro—comprised of two townhomes, and two blocks from Boston Common—or wandering the highly ranked, indie bookstores of Cambridge, like the rare books of Rodney’s on Central Square. For some Colonially-minded cuisine, check out the new Loyal Nine in Cambridge, where the “East Coast Revival” menu features a fried clam and pig-ear roll with bitter green relish, or lobster braised with hickory nuts and mead. While it’s all undeniably charming, the locals still ranked at No. 5 in the survey for being a trifle snooty.
No. 6 Portland, OR
Thanks in part to the International Rose Test Garden—nearly a century old and 7,000 blooms strong—Portland has a distinctly home-grown charm. But the city’s man-made enticements have only multiplied in recent years: It also won the survey for food trucks, like hot pod Tidbit Food Farm and Garden, which offers intriguing trucks like Love Belizean and Ingrid’s Scandinavian Food, as well as a fire pit that tends to attracts guitar-toting patrons. Turning up the quaint factor even more is the hotel Caravan, in the Alberta Arts District, made up of adorably tiny houses on wheels. Each measures up to 200 square feet with a kitchen, bathroom, and sleeping space for up to four.
No. 5 Washington, D.C.
Our nation’s capital secured its top 5 position with a combination of history, museums, and iconic architecture. The city’s most picturesque area, though, may be Georgetown, nicely explored through D.C. by Foot’s walking tour, where you can see the Old Stone House (the oldest unchanged building in the city), historic churches, and the spot where JFK proposed to Jackie (Martin’s Tavern). D.C. has global charm, too, like the new, Asian-night-market-style Maketto on H Street NE, which offers pho and bao as well as art books, limited-edition sneakers, and much-buzzed about Vigilante coffee. Civilization can sometimes differ from civility, though: D.C. locals ranked among the least friendly locals in the U.S.
No. 4 Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Twin Cities ranked at No. 1 for their parks and gardens, and one of the most appealing locations is Minnehaha Falls, which Longfellow immortalized in his Native American love story Song of Hiawatha. In St. Paul, the green-space charisma comes from Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, with its Japanese garden, and downtown’s Rice Park, which has become a prime locale for marriage proposals. For some edible charm, go to St. Paul’s Grand Ole Creamery, on historic Grand Avenue, where the signature flavor is Black Hills Gold, made with vanilla, caramelized praline pecans, and Oreos. The locals can get away with double scoops: They ranked at No. 1 for looking fit.
No. 3 Providence
With its Colonial-era past, renowned arts scene and compact ambiance, the Rhode Island capital easily charmed its way into the top 3. One hot zone for quaint is Wickenden Street, home to antique stores, art galleries and longtime local roaster Coffee Exchange, a representative of city’s bronze-medal win for coffee. To lose yourself in the quaintness, take a seat near one of the fireplaces at The Duck & Bunny, which offers afternoon tea, gourmet cupcakes and crepes—and even labels itself a “snuggery.” Or, take the self-guided walking tour of Benefit Street—with restored waterfront homes, churches and museums—offered by the Providence Preservation Society.
No. 2 New Orleans
Between the graceful architecture, inviting shops along Magazine Street, and cultural quirks like the Voodoo Museum, the Crescent City downright intoxicated readers with charm—and that was even before they hit the bars, which ranked at No. 1 in the survey. New Orleans also ranked at the top for its notable restaurants—like the “haute Creole” at the Garden District’s Commander’s Palace, where the bread pudding soufflé with whiskey sauce reminds you why the city also won the survey for brunch. For a more local perspective—with skyline views—walk along the levee in Algiers Point (the city’s second-oldest neighborhood), a short ferry boat ride from Canal Street. New Orleans also offers proof that charm need not be pristine: the city ranked near the bottom of the survey for being tidy, and near the top for lovably noisy.
No. 1 Charleston
It has horse-drawn carriages, world-class antique shops, and some breathtakingly attractive residents: this South Carolina city dazzled readers with its charm offensive. To wrap yourself in charm (and Frette linens) at night, check in at the 18-room Zero George Street, comprised of five historic homes in the Ansonborough district, where you can take low-country cooking classes from the executive chef. Readers’ favorite sport in Charleston was shopping, like the sparkling estate jewels at the century-old Croghan’s Jewel Box or the sustainably-made candles (in aromas like bergamot-and-basil) at Candlefish.