America's Strangest People 2011
Are they hippies, weirdos, or just cooler than the rest of us? Travel + Leisure readers voted on which cities fly their freak flags the highest.
Portland, OR, has earned a reputation for quirkiness: independent shops, locally produced cuisine, and—how to be diplomatic?—offbeat locals. You can see it in how they dress, perhaps, or through their love of bicycles, eco-conscious living, and craft beers.
Las Vegas resident Corey Lewis puts it more bluntly: “You see more mustaches in Portland than in a 1970s high school yearbook.” Even so, the communications professional says he loves the city for its all-natural, unconventional flair. “In other places, it would be called an Arts District,” he says, “but here, it’s really the whole city.”
Portland easily made the top five cities for America’s strangest people, as judged by Travel + Leisure readers. They evaluated 35 major cities in travel-related categories for our annual America’s Favorite Cities survey, and the inclusion of an offbeat category highlights how much travelers appreciate a little eccentricity in their getaways—mustaches and all.
How did voters define offbeat? For some cities, it likely reflects a long tradition of flamboyance and colorful people-watching—found in No. 1–ranked New Orleans. Other top 20 cities, such as Santa Fe and Providence, RI, have vibrant arts communities, ranking well in the survey for galleries, theater, and live music.
For other winning cities, the strange factor stems from a mash-up of alternative styles that can date back decades. For instance, here’s how Emily Williamson, communications specialist for Lusso Bags, describes her fellow residents in Seattle: “We still have a kind of hip-grunge demeanor going on around here—thrown in with business casual, business professional, and a streak of goth.”
You can also argue that kookiness is learned, rather than being an innate quality, and that some locals are striving for just that kind of compliment. After all, strangeness isn’t just something in the water—or even the locally brewed beer.
“In Austin, you’re really not a part of the scene until you’ve grown a beard, gotten a tattoo, and found the most ironic consignment-store clothing available,” says James Beswick, a technical author and consultant who recently moved to the Texas capital. Not that he dislikes the place. “The city is full of friendly people,” he adds.
No. 1 New Orleans
Is it any surprise? There’s a good reason that the Crescent City is also the No. 1 city for bars, wild weekends, and people-watching: every day can be its own form of Mardi Gras, from the Frenchmen Street area to the whole French Quarter. The locals aren’t hiding that offbeat nature, either: New Orleans also ranked No. 1 for civic pride.
No. 2 SantaFe, NM
This longtime magnet for artists has an earthy, funky atmosphere, seen up close in the Plaza or along Canyon Road. Shop around a while, and you’ll start to blend in: Santa Fe ranks first for independent boutiques. Locals may be offbeat, but they aren’t off-putting; the city ranks highly for being friendly.
No. 3 Austin,TX
The college town that inspired the movies Slacker and Dazed and Confused has almost a cottage industry in hipness. Hot zones for slacker types are the areas around South Congress and the University of Texas campus. But you can also see the capital’s super-fit locals making the most of the great live music.
No. 4 Portland,OR
As the TV show Portlandia puts it, “Portland is where young people go to retire.” Residents love their bicycles, food trucks, and comfortable shoes—and they also seem pretty happy. Pioneer Square is a nerve center for homegrown types, but you can also find them relaxing over a local coffee or microbrew, both of which earned the city a No. 2 spot in our survey.
No. 5 SanFrancisco
Hippies are an integral part of San Francisco history, and plenty of folks proudly carry on the tradition. Even so, in the No. 2 city for diversity, there are also offbeat people with a nerdy bent, ranking highly for being both brainy and super tech-savvy. The Mission District and its Dolores Park make for great people-watching.
No. 6 Providence,RI
The Rhode Island capital gets its flair from loads of college students and artists. Head to the West End for a concentration of underground galleries and avant-garde performance spaces. After all, Providence ranked No. 3 for its theater scene. Even its No. 2–ranked pizza—often grilled—is quirky.
No. 7 Savannah,GA
Folks in this southern city tend toward the eccentric, whether they’re strolling River Street, poking around in cool antique stores, or filing into the famed Clary’s Café after church on Sunday. The city is strange in the most picture-perfect of ways, ranking first for its parks, fall visits, and romantic getaways.
No. 8 SanJuan, P.R.
Locals are known for being almost raucously friendly, with a different definition of personal space than many other Americans. But voters were just fine with that: locals in the Puerto Rican capital won the survey for being good-looking, and came in No. 2 for being both stylish and charming. Strange has never looked better.
No. 9 Seattle
They don’t mind jogging in the rain and will wear Gore-Tex with everything. For the quirkiest of them, explore the Fremont and Capitol Hill areas, but before you make fun, take note that people in Seattle ranked as the smartest in the survey, and No. 3 for being the fittest. For extra motivation, they have the benefit of terrific and obsessed-about coffee.
No. 10 Portland,ME
Artists and fishermen in this New England city may or may not like to be referred to as salty, but you can soak up the waterfront vibe by walking along the docks, fish pounds, and bars on Commercial Street. Be sure to stop for a pint: the local microbrews ranked third in the survey. One thing that’s happily un-quirky about the locals: their good driving, which ranked No. 1.
No. 11 Philadelphia
They may get upstaged by their city’s top-ranked historical sites, but Philly locals still deserve a good gawking, even if it’s just for wearing a dizzying array of team logos (the city won the survey for most sports-crazed). South Street, Washington Square West, and gritty, up-and-coming Northern Liberties are a few areas to go in search of hip, artsy locals.
No. 12 NewYork City
In the No. 1 city for diversity, style, and theater, New Yorkers consider unconventionality the norm. So locals might be surprised—even disappointed—that they ranked only 12th for being strange. Perhaps visitors expect to see all kinds of crazy and simply aren’t fazed. Whatever the reasoning, offbeat is looking unkempt these days: New York City came in last place for cleanliness, and the local drivers ranked as among the craziest.
No. 13 Anchorage
Since they stroll the streets like everyone else, moose could count as some of this Alaskan city’s quirkiest locals—along with the downtown businessmen who wear waders during lunchtime to fish in Ship Creek. Anchorage came in last place for style, but it did score a pleasant fourth place for peace and quiet. Come to town for the kickoff of the Iditarod in March, and you’ll see supporters dressed in full mountain-man garb.
No. 14 LosAngeles
It’s tough to stand out in a city where many locals make a living out of competing for attention. The champs of eye-catching may be around Venice Beach, the community where rollerblading in cutoffs still seems normal. They wear it well, though: Angelenos came in fourth place for looks, fifth place for style, and third place for their home décor stores.
No. 15 SanDiego
Are the locals odd just because they don parkas (and shorts) when the temperature goes below 60? In the No. 1 city for weather, surfer types—who thrive in the Ocean Beach community—also see no problem with changing out of their wetsuits along the side of a road. You can take home a piece of local style by browsing the city’s highly ranked flea markets.
No. 16 LasVegas
Offbeat might be putting it lightly when it comes to Sin City’s motley characters. So why didn’t Vegas—No. 2 for both wild weekends and people-watching—rank higher? Perhaps because it takes more than a Cher wig and a gold lamé thong to get a second look, or because the weirdos are actually the tourists, and the locals just keep their own kookiness on the down-low; the city did rank in the bottom 10 for civic pride.
No. 17 Baltimore
Voters were a little put off by these Marylanders, who came in next-to-last place for looks and last place for making one feel safe. To explore the city’s goofier side, come to the Hampden area in summer for HonFest (as in “Hon,” a heavily accented term of endearment), where participants tease their hair into beehives and celebrate the local dialect, “ Bawlmerese.”
No. 18 Memphis,TN
The funky locals may not be the fittest in the nation or the most cutting-edge, but the time-honored traditions of great barbecue and live music make them a welcoming lot. In the city’s Midtown area, you’ll find a diverse community—many of the city’s famed musicians live and hang out in these neighborhoods.
No. 19 Denver
People in the Mile High City love sports as much as they do beer—you can even see locals playing the odd-looking sloshball, a version of kickball that features frequent trips to a keg. And while the aerobically inclined locals are considered friendly, according to the survey, they’re even more psyched to meet your dog: the city ranked first for pet-friendly vacations.
No. 20 Honolulu
Turns out it takes more than bright floral shirts to qualify as offbeat. Honolulu residents typically extend a warm welcome, ranking in the top 10 for friendliness. Look for them at the city’s ethnic food restaurants and cool flea markets.