America's Strangest People
Whether they’re riding unicycles, peddling art, or strolling in the nude, America’s offbeat locals put out a colorful welcome mat for travelers.
The last time Greg Newkirk visited New Orleans, one of his favorite local attractions was an actual local.
“I had walked into a shop to ask a few questions and ended up getting a thorough history of New Orleans voodoo by a man who was the nicest self-professed vampire you would ever meet,” says the Cincinnati-based editor of Roadtrippers.com. “He gave us weird travel advice, delicious food advice, and psychic life advice. If that doesn’t sum up the French Quarter, I don’t know what does.”
Such full-service eccentricity made New Orleans a natural contender for the nation’s strangest people, based on votes in the offbeat category of T+L’s annual America’s Favorite Cities survey. Readers rank 35 metropolitan areas for features such as live music and food trucks as well as their residents—be they smart, attractive, or, indeed, lovably weird.
Certainly, New Orleans had some tough competition in the offbeat category. Austin, TX, and Portland, OR, have staked their reputations on quirky hipster charm, while Savannah, GA, Santa Fe, NM, and New York have deep traditions of colorful local characters.
And while a little bit of the bizarre always provides great people-watching, travelers may also embrace such destinations because they encourage them to step out of their own shells and relax.
“People feel very uninhibited when they visit,” Fred Perrotta, cofounder of Tortuga Backpacks, says of his hometown of San Francisco. “Why be reserved, trying not to offend the person next to you, when he’s half naked, riding a unicycle, and carrying a pet pig?”
No. 1 New Orleans
Winning the top slot again, New Orleans waves its freak flag with plenty of civic pride. Given the year-round schedule of festivals—and its ranking at No. 1 for live music and wild weekends—the come-as-you-are attitude is infectious. A prime spot for people-watching is Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood; you can join the dancers at the Spotted Cat, or browse the eccentric crafts and jewelry at the Frenchmen Art Market.
No. 2 Portland, OR
Up two rankings from last year, this Oregon city is home to the Unipiper, a unicycling bagpiper fond of dressing as Darth Vader or Santa—and he’s just another denizen of this earnestly out-there town. The east side has a high concentration of mustachioed, fedora-wearing folk, at spots such as Voodoo Doughnut, the vegan mini-mall on SE 12th, or the nearby food truck pod, at Hawthorne.
No. 3 Austin, TX
Long before Austin became famous for its South by Southwest festival, the biggest annual party was (and to some, still is) Eeyore’s Birthday, celebrated in late April by musicians, college students, hipsters, and politicos in Pease Park. Year round, you can see a monument to the Keep Austin Weird mantra at the Cathedral of Junk, a 60-ton structure that a resident built in his yard using old bicycles, cribs, and hubcaps. Austin also scored highly for ice cream: local chain Amy’s serves kooky flavors like bacon jalapeño popper.
No. 4 San Francisco
While Haight-Ashbury used to be the mother ship for hippies, today you’ll more likely find eye-catching denizens in the Castro—site of Jane Warner Plaza, a park where the city’s resident nudists often gather (even though public nudity is still technically illegal). Perhaps ironically, the city also ranked highly for its fashion-savvy locals. To explore another facet of San Francisco’s counterculture, check out the Institute of Illegal Images, a house-turned-museum in the Mission District where you can see framed prints of LSD blotter paper and learn about the history of psychedelics.
No. 5 Santa Fe, NM
According to a local survey, one in 10 residents identifies as an artist, which certainly explains the vibrant gallery scene. The other nine seem to include a fair number of spiritual healers and scientist types who work at Los Alamos. To see them all mix it up, check out the Saturday farmers’ and artists’ market at the Santa Fe Railyard, or the La Fiesta Lounge inside La Fonda Hotel, where nightly music draws a local crowd.
No. 6 Savannah, GA
This historic (and ghost-loving) Georgia city consistently ranks in the offbeat top 10 for bucking the notion of southern propriety. Browse the weekly market at Forsyth Park, or catch some impromptu theater from the cardboard-clad Live Action Role Playing Club. For a good snapshot of the city’s happy-hour atmosphere, pull up a stool at downtown’s Bay Street Blues, which is run by a mother-daughter team and attracts an eclectic, karaoke-loving crowd.
No. 7 Seattle
Intellectual, outdoorsy, and perhaps hopped-up on espresso: the techy city of Seattle exudes an earthy-but-nerdy charm. The Fremont neighborhood is home to the climbable, public-art Troll and the oft-decorated statue of Lenin, and has long drawn a textured crowd (especially during the summer solstice). Capitol Hill, meanwhile, has plenty of idiosyncratic hangouts like the Unicorn Bar, where retro pinball is a top attraction.
No. 8 New York City
Just as this shoppers’ paradise has a dedicated district for almost any item you might want—from diamonds to guitars and lightbulbs—the Big Apple also has a district, it seems, for every kind of fascinating folk. There are the mermaids in Coney Island, the hipsters in Williamsburg, and of course, the street performers, Naked Cowboys, and not-quite-right cartoon characters wandering Times Square. It’s no surprise that New York also ranked at the top of the survey for being diverse.
No. 9 Providence, RI
After slipping three spots this year, the Rhode Island capital is perhaps trying to stage a quirky comeback with the recent debut of its new flea market on the Providence River Greenway. Otherwise, Providence scores highly for its theater scene, and its unconventionality is on display at Big Nazo, a puppet theater that regularly features trolls, lab rats, wrestlers, and a man-eating Chia Pet. Readers also loved Providence for its nontraditional grilled pizza.
No. 10 Nashville
Weird? Sure, but apparently never creepy. Music City catapulted into the offbeat top 10 this year despite also ranking at the top of the survey for its affable locals and for feeling safe. To embrace the eccentrics, head to the Five Points section of East Nashville, where you can find an outfit from Patsy Cline’s era at vintage boutique Hip Zipper, or feast on artisan hot dogs from I Dream of Weenie, a souped-up VW bus.
No. 11 Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Twin Cities have cultivated outdoorsy hipsters, and you’ll find a lot of them in Northeast Minneapolis—at spots like Nye’s Polonaise Room (home of the World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band) or Ballet of the Dolls theater, which performs such deconstructed classics as a Nutcracker Suite featuring Barbie and Ken. Weird or wise, they must be doing something right: these Minnesotans ranked No. 1 both for brains and for having impeccable taste.
No. 12 Los Angeles
In Hollywood’s hometown, there are some truly famous people and many other folks who are trying very hard to be famous—or at least to get your attention. The almost freakishly fit exhibitionists at Venice’s Muscle Beach are reliable for people-watching; lesser-known spots include the Palms Thai restaurant, featuring the award-winning Thai Elvis impersonator. For another kind of culture fix, try the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City or Pasadena’s Bunny Museum, with more than 28,000 bunny-themed collectibles.
No. 13 Portland, ME
With their wicked-good way of talking, these New Englanders have a distinctive vibe, even if their fisherman fashion sense is a little conservative. For an offbeat, eco-friendly souvenir, go to Sea Bags in the Old Port and pick up one of the shopping bags made of used sails. One pleasantly predictable characteristic of Portland: traffic behavior. The locals ranked near the top for their excellent driving skills.
No. 14 San Diego
With their love of sunshine and fitness, the kookiest San Diegans at least sport a healthy glow. Ocean Beach (or “OB”) is the epicenter for the hippie-meets-surfer culture, seen up close at burger institution Hodad’s. A little inland in Normal Heights (which many locals call Abnormal Heights), you can soak up the gently freaky vibes at 24-hour coffeehouse Lestat’s, or at Jyoti Bihanga, the vegetarian restaurant owned and operated by students of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy.
No. 15 Memphis, TN
Barbecue, soul food, and a storied music scene create a thriving environment for these funky Tennesseans. In Midtown, you can browse for music alongside vinyl purists at Goner Records, or enjoy an old-school Sazerac (with rye whiskey, bitters, and absinthe) at the retro, nautical-themed Cove. And speaking of old school, Memphis ranked near the bottom of the survey’s tech-savvy category.
No. 16 Honolulu
Readers equated the island city more with bliss than with funk: it ranked first for its tropical weather, and No. 2 for romance. But for a quirky pau hana version of relaxation, check out the southern shore neighborhood of Kaka’ako, where the monthly Night Market offers a wealth of food trucks, improv performers, ukulele players, and Chinese lion pole jumpers.
No. 17 Anchorage
In this frontier city—where fishing-lure earrings count as a legit fashion accessory—the Spaniard area has the trendiest shops, as well as bush-pilot-friendly bars. The Bird House at Chilkoot Charlie’s, for instance, is the re-creation of a legendary bar whose floor got tilted by the city’s 9.2 earthquake in 1964. Admittedly, Anchorage didn’t rank highly in the survey as a rowdy party town; readers liked the no-nonsense, mellow vibe.
No. 18 Miami
Singles-friendly Miami placed near the top for its flamboyant sense of style—and you can do some haute fashion–watching in the Design District. Readers also loved the diverse, fascinating neighborhoods. In Little Haiti, you’ll hear more Creole than English (and see plenty of vivid public art by local painter Serge Toussaint), while Little Havana has plenty of tropical-fruit mamey milkshakes, elderly gentlemen playing dominoes, and infectious music.
No. 19 San Juan, P.R.
It would be hard to characterize these island locals as total oddballs: after all, they ranked highly for good looks and charming accents. To hang with some fun-loving residents, go to La Placita in the Santurce neighborhood—a no-cars-allowed square with no shortage of street food, beer, and local characters. San Juan also has a reputation for being festive: it ranked near the top of the survey as a New Year’s Eve and Christmas destination.
No. 20 Philadelphia
How off-kilter is Philly’s Callowhill section? Reportedly, even filmmaker David Lynch was weirded out when he lived here (it also inspired his surrealist Eraserhead). You can explore its heart at the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art—a gallery and performance space located in a former mausoleum and tombstone showroom—or the Trestle Inn, located under the Reading Railroad tracks, which offers ’60s-era cocktails and go-go dancers. Philly also ranked at the top for its intense sport fans.