These Are America’s 20 Most Cultured Cities 2015
When she first visited Washington, D.C. as a 12-year-old, Elizabeth Avery was blown away by two cultural landmarks—both of which were away from the National Mall.
“To this day, I remember my wonder upon seeing the beautiful Islamic Center and the Neo-Gothic National Cathedral,” says the founder of travel site Solo Trekker 4 U. Today, the D.C. denizen and self-proclaimed “culture vulture” still gets a thrill discovering the city. Some of her favorite only-in-D.C. experiences, she says, include the often-overlooked embassies, which offer a lot of free events. “From Irish jigs to the Austrian Embassy's musical series, or Bulgarian folk dancers,” she says, “you can travel around 18 countries while saving on airfare.”
Those dense layers of artistic and international culture made our nation’s capital one of the top cities for “culture vultures,” according to Travel + Leisure readers. In the latest America’s Favorite Cities survey, readers ranked 38 cities on the kind of categories that, as Avery says, “give cities their unique vibrancy”: their art scenes and sense of history, as well as their theater communities, live music, and bookstores.
Another factor that, for better or worse, contributed to the cultural atmosphere: some well-versed, even snooty, locals. And why not? In one top 20 city, you can hear concerts played on period instruments Beethoven would have used, and in another, you can watch the nation’s longest poetry reading—even if it’s in a dive bar.
Great culture, after all, need not be limited to museums and concert halls. After a stimulating day of D.C. culture, Avery says she likes to head to Vienna—or the closest approximation. “I love the Kafé Leopold,” she says, of the Viennese café in Georgetown, “for their authentic Sacher Torte.”
1. New York City
The winning city covers the arts so well—from the Met to MoMa, Lincoln Center and Broadway—that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. To soak up the culture like a local, remember that there’s more to NYC than just Manhattan. Brooklyn offers the one-stop cultural shopping—music, theater, dance and film—at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (or BAM), as well as the Brooklyn Museum, which this summer will have an exhibit of Brooklyn-born Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work, some of which has never been seen in the U.S. Or head up to the Bronx, where you can explore the New York Botanical Garden and this summer’s “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life.” New York also ranked at No. 3 for its absorbing bookstores, like The Strand near Union Square or the theater-lovers’ Drama Book Shop, on West 40th Street, where you can buy rare and out-of-print scripts and watch in-store readings.
These Rhode Islanders ranked near the top of the survey for being nerdy, hip, and offbeat—a solid foundation for a thriving arts scene. You can tap into the city’s cultural roots at the Providence Athenaeum, the nearly 200-year-old public library and cultural center that is now home to weekly Balzac and Tolstoy reading discussions; or, glimpse into the future at downtown arts space AS220 or edgy puppet theater Big Nazo. If you’re in town on a Sunday, take advantage of the free admission at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum—whose collection spans from the ancient Greeks to Picasso and Warhol. Afterward, get a coffee and pastry at nearby White Electric Coffee, a reminder of the city’s No. 1 and No. 3 rankings for baked goods and java.
This big-business town has always had a soft spot for world-class art: Its oak-tree-lined Museum District has 20 institutions, including the privately assembled Menil Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the non-denominational Rothko Chapel, which houses 14 of the artist’s abstract paintings. And while the city also has excellent performing arts, like the Houston Ballet, some visitors still crave a bit of Texas twang: You can find it at legendary music store Cactus Music, in the Upper Kirby area, which hosts free singer-songwriter shows most Saturdays, and serves locally made St. Arnold’s beer—a category where the city ranked at No. 5.
4. Kansas City
As the No. 1 city for affordability, Kansas City offers serious bang for your cultural buck. Its three main museums—The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (home to one of the few Caravaggios in the United States), the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art—all boast free admission. KC also scored in the top 5 for concerts, which could include the Lyric Opera at the iconic Kauffman Center, or sets at the Blue Room, the venue inside the American Jazz Museum. And while Kansas City won the survey for barbecue, it also made the top five for its interesting chef-driven cuisine—like the Crosstown District’s Grünauer, helmed by Viennese chef Peter Grünauer, which offers a Germanic Sunday brunch, or frühschoppen.
5. Los Angeles
Angelenos may get a bad rap for seeming a little shallow—they ranked at No. 3 for being both trendy and snobby—but their cultural landscape runs deep, from Hollywood to the Getty Center. Film history buffs will love checking out the monthly silent films at Cinefamily on Fairfax, or the outdoor screenings against the mausoleum at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Among the best non-motion pictures, the LACMA is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year (with a special exhibit including a Warhol “Double Marilyn”), while art fans await September’s opening of The Broad, the “veil”-exteriored downtown museum that will kick off with an exhibit of contemporary art, ranging from Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons. In the meantime, you can partake of the city’s respectably ranked wine bars, like downtown’s Pour Haus.
6. Washington D.C.
Our nation’s capital offers what may the perfect combination of cultural enticements: it ranked at No. 1 for museums, history, and free attractions, thanks in large part to the free-access Smithsonian. But the latest exhibits easily transcend classroom-tour-group parameters, whether it’s this summer’s Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze at the National Portrait Gallery or the indoor “beach” made of one million recycled plastic balls at the National Building Museum. Over at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, meanwhile, you can see free shows of classical, jazz or funk every evening at 6 p.m. D.C. also made the top 20 for its deliciously diverse food trucks, like the Indian ChatPat or the Francophile Crepes Parfait.
Boston’s cultural personality is deeply entwined with its sense of history, which readers ranked at No. 4. After all, the Museum of Fine Arts first opened on our nation’s centennial (and these days is getting ready for spring and summer concerts on the courtyard), while the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was once the home of the 19th-century art collector who, like many Bostonians today, was a big fan of both the Boston Symphony and the Red Sox. Having its own bicentennial this year is the Handel and Haydn Society, which does Historically Informed Performances (or “HIP”), employing the same kinds of keyboards, for instance, that were used when the pieces were composed. And while 21st-century Bostonians did not make the T+L top 20 for being “hip,” they did rank at No. 5 for being brainy.
8. Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Twin Cities ranked at No. 3 for its art scene, and the Walker Art Center is one big reason why: the 75-year-old institution is about to kick off a crowd-pleasing summer with its acclaimed “International Pop” exhibit, as well as its annual, artist-created mini golf course in its Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The Twin Cities also made the top 5 for its festivals, many of which focus on the arts—like Northern Spark, the all-night outdoor festival that falls near the summer solstice, featuring live music, interactive art exhibits and a public art contest. As another sort of masterpiece, the Twin Cities scored at No. 3 for its burgers, like the cheese-on-the-inside Juicy Lucies at the 5-8 Club in Minneapolis, or the Nook in St. Paul.
The Southern hub’s arts scene showed enough substance (and a bit of high-ranking snobbery) to make the survey’s top 10. Take the sleek High Museum of Art—the biggest art museum in the Southeast—which, until fall of 2015, will be paying tribute to another gorgeous design, the Coca-Cola bottle. To see up-and-coming artists, check out the Goat Farm Arts Center in West Midtown, which showcases local visual artists, performance art and film. Or, walk around the downtown neighborhood of Castleberry Hill, dotted with galleries, murals and an excellent example of the city’s No. 4-ranking brunch: soul food institution Paschal’s, where the signature fried chicken is so good that it counts as breakfast fare.
Chicago placed at No. 7 for its world-class museums, like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum of Natural History—and at No. 3 for its theater scene, like the legendary Steppenwolf and Goodman theaters. And while foodies love their cities’ Restaurant Week, theater lovers here can dig into Chicago’s annual Theatre Week, every February, when tickets start at just $15. Chicago also made the top three in the nation for its architecture, and this fall, you can come for the Chicago Architecture Biennial, featuring full-scale installations at the Chicago Cultural Center (an architectural feat in itself, with the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome). For a local but edible work of art, tuck into one of the city’s No. 1-ranking pizzas, like the stuffed classics at Giordano’s.
11. San Francisco
The City by the Bay ranked highly for its museums—like the under-renovation San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Asian Art Museum—but some of the best art in town lies outside of museum walls, and is better seen at night. Three Gems is a LED-lit, subterranean installation at the de Young’s sculpture garden, which literally colors how you see the night sky, while Caruso’s Dream is a dangling installation of 13 “pianos” outside the Civic Center, enhanced by radio broadcasts of opera legend Enrico Caruso (who thought he was dreaming when he experienced the city’s 1906 earthquake). Indeed, while these Californians get dissed by readers for being a little aloof, they don’t stand on ceremony when it comes to enjoying opera: Every summer, AT+T Park hosts a free simulcast of the San Francisco Opera.
For a lot of travelers, the cultural epicenter of Cleveland is University Circle, home to venues like Severance Hall, the HQ of the Cleveland Orchestra, and the free-admission Cleveland Museum of Art (which, this fall, will partner with London’s Royal Academy of Arts for “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse”). The Ohio city also got a standing ovation from readers for its theater scene: Playhouse Square, which boasts of being the nation's largest performing-arts district outside Broadway, has nine theaters, including Cleveland Play House, the nation’s first regional theater . For a treat after the show, Cleveland made the top 10 for its diners, like the soda-fountain-style Sweet Moses in the Gordon Square Arts District.
Even if you mostly know the Philadelphia Museum of Art as the place where Rocky ran up and down the steps, it’s hard to deny the city’s cultural muscle. (If you run the steps yourself this summer, go inside afterward to see this summer’s blockbuster show of Impressionists.) The prestigious Curtis Institute of Music offers free concerts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday while school is in session; and, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the city is now doing a Mural Arts Program, which guides you to the city’s best public art (like Keith Haring’s We the Youth on Ellsworth St.) by foot, elevated train or trolley. The city’s other great cultural contribution, of course, is the cheesesteak (the local sandwiches ranked at No. 3): to broaden your horizons beyond the staples of Geno’s and Pat’s, try the leaner, cooked-in-juices version at James Beard Award winner John’s Roast Pork.
Nashville has always embraced the juxtaposition of high and “hillbilly” culture: after all, the Grand Ole Opry got its name because the radio show used to follow an opera broadcast. If you’re not the type to try the open mic at the Bluebird Cafe, you can always try painting at the hands-on Martin Art Quest area at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. To dig deeper into the city’s prime export, go to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (currently showing “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats,” which explores the friendship between a certain folk singer and the Man in Black), and pick up a piece of concert-poster art at the legendary Hatch Show Print. To see why the city also ranked well for its bars, spend happy hour at the Hermitage Hotel’s Oak Bar, where you can pair your Champagne with a smoked bologna sandwich.
15. New Orleans
As a top five city for free attractions—and the No. 1 city for wild weekends—New Orleans’ jazz-centric culture is meant to be enjoyed with abandon. You can come to the weekly (and free) Jazz in the Park at Louis Armstrong Park, or check out the renowned Rebirth Brass Band on its home turf, dive bar Maple Leaf Bar, every Tuesday night. (The Maple Leaf also hosts, every Sunday, the reportedly longest running poetry reading in North America.) In this No. 3-ranking pedestrian-friendly city, you can also stroll past creative public sculptures—like the new, oversized swimmers on the Poydras Street Corridor, or the giant, tuneful structures at Music Box Roving Village. The newest museum in town, meanwhile, is the New Orleans Tattoo Museum, where you can learn about the techniques and inspirations of ink-on-skin artists. The locals, not surprisingly, ranked at No. 1 for being pretty offbeat.
One could argue that the dominant culture in this Kentucky city revolves around bourbon, bluegrass music, and horses—and is that necessarily a bad thing? Through this fall, the city will be showing off Gallopalooza, a public-art exhibition of colorful, life-sized fiberglass horses. For more interactive art, go to Local Speed, the temporary home of the renowned Speed Art Museum: at the NuLu location you can write your own goals, in chalk, on its Before I Die Wall. Louisville also made the top 10 for its live music, like the bluegrass The Monkey Wrench, which also offers local bourbons and eight gourmet interpretations of the grilled cheese sandwich.
This South Carolina city charmed readers with its time-capsule ambience, ranking it highly for architecture, history, and antiques. Indeed, plenty of visitors are fascinated by the city’s old plantations-turned-museums—like Middleton Place, Boone Hall, and the newly opened McLeod Plantation Historic Site, which focuses on the slaves who lived there. Charleston also made the top 20 for its festivals, like late spring’s 17-day Spoleto USA, which this year features classical music, Vietnamese water puppets, and the Scottish Ballet’s interpretation of A Streetcar Named Desire. The champion of low-country cuisine also placed at No. 4 for its notable restaurants—like the deviled eggs with pickled okra and trout roe at the acclaimed Husk on Queen Street.
Readers didn’t give Dallas a lot of credit for its extensive high culture—readers ranked the local Christmas lights ahead of the art scene—but the voters may have gotten too distracted by the wealth of high-end shopping at Highland Park Village or McKinney Ave.’s Forty Five Ten. Dallas shows its edgy side, though, at the Design District’s Lab Art Texas, a spin-off of the Los Angeles temple to street art. To stay near the city’s main cultural powerhouses—like the Norman-Foster-designed Winspear Opera House, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nasher Sculpture Center—check in at boutique hotel The Joule, which houses two more fashionable diversions, Traffic L.A. and TenOverSix.
Given that the locals of Seattle ranked as both nerdy and little weird, it makes sense that some of the most beloved public art pieces have a distinctly hands-on feel. People can’t help but sit on the giant Fremont Troll, while locals regularly decorate Fremont’s Waiting for the Interurban statues with hats and ties; in University Park’s Peace Park, meanwhile, you can add your own origami paper crane to Hiroshima statue Sadako and the Thousand Cranes. Despite Seattle’s vibrant tech culture, the city also ranked well for its love of books, from longtime favorite Elliott Bay Book Company to the Rem Koolhaas-designed Central Public Library (take the escalator to the 10th floor for great views of Elliott Bay).
Even the mainstream art in Pittsburgh has a uniquely local bent—from the eccentric “time capsules” at the Andy Warhol Museum to the installations in the repurposed Mattress Factory and the just-opened Art Space 616, housed in a former car dealership. Warhol is not the only native artist that Pittsburgh celebrates: one of the best performing arts spaces is the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, named after Pittsburgh-bred Gene Kelly and composer Billy (“Take the A Train”) Strayhorn. Pittsburgh also topped the survey for its sports fans: to immerse yourself in Steeler Culture, order a Pittsburgh-brewed Iron City beer and the Ultimate Mac and Cheese (with bacon and a bread-crumb crust) at Jerome Bettis’ Grille 36, conveniently located near Heinz Field.