America's Techiest Cities
Walking around San Francisco, public relations exec Christina Farr regularly sees people on the street she knows—from Twitter, that is. Just how plugged-in is the city? “Everyone I know has an idea for a tech start-up,” she observes, “even my mom.”
That pervasive digital culture sent San Francisco to the top three of America’s Techiest Cities. As part of the annual America’s Favorite Cities (AFC) survey, Travel + Leisure readers ranked 35 major cities on qualities such as microbrews, live music, and street food. Readers also judged how tech-savvy the locals seem, and the reliability of wireless coverage; we combined the two sets of results to come up with our list of the techiest cities.
Scanning the top 20, one sees a clear correlation between brainy locals—another AFC category—and those cities’ tech communities. The Seattle and San Francisco areas, for instance, support heavyweights such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple. Boston, Providence, and Austin, meanwhile, enjoy the benefits of academia and an atmosphere that spurs innovation.
Savoir faire doesn’t always equate with good phone signals, however. Salt Lake City came in second place for its wireless coverage, but only 20th when it came to tech-savvy. And while New York City has plenty of brainpower, its spotty signals dragged it down to No. 17. “Any call I make from inside my office has to be for less than 30 seconds, or it’s a goner,” says Pete Meyers, co-owner of travel site EuroCheapo.com. He found the opposite in Austin: “The sheer mass of cafés, bars, and even food trucks that offer Wi-Fi made getting a signal a breeze.”
While you wouldn’t plan a visit just based on speedy downloads or lack of dropped calls, some cities foster a tech culture that creates its own attractions. According to a Cornell University study, the glass-cube-fronted Apple Store in midtown is now New York City’s fifth-most-photographed landmark. In Portland, OR, you can shop for used gear at an all-tech thrift shop, and in San Diego, a popular app will help you find the city’s hottest new microbrews.
These pervasive tech opportunities can become almost all-consuming. “In San Francisco, we are surrounded by breathtaking natural landscape and architecture, which we rarely stop to enjoy,” says Farr. “But we regularly capture it on our iPhones.”
No. 1 Seattle
The northwestern hub—home to giants such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Nintendo—won first place for both its great wireless coverage and its tech-savvy locals (they also rank as the nation’s smartest). Plentiful Wi-Fi enables the local java addicts too: the city won the survey for its omnipresent coffee. To check your email for free and mingle with the Amazon crowd, go to Uptown Espresso—famed for its “velvet foam”—at the South Lake Union location.
No. 2 San Francisco
Free Wi-Fi is practically a basic human right in the Bay Area, offered in countless coffeehouses, bars, hotels, and soon, even most buses crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. For Apple loyalists, it’s hard to beat the Macworld/iWorld fan fest that comes to town in late January. The rest of the year, AFC voters got whipped up over the excellent fine dining and art galleries.
No. 3 Austin, TX
The Texas capital’s annual arts festival, South by Southwest, has increasingly morphed into a tech-fest over the years. The hometown of Dell computers offers wireless coverage almost anywhere, from the Convention Center—which boasts of accommodating up to 7,000 Internet connections simultaneously—to idyllic Zilker Park, where you can see techies playing Frisbee golf and taking dips in chilly Barton Springs. Indeed, AFC voters also applauded Austin locals for being lovably quirky.
No. 4 Portland, OR
This capital of unconventionality, according to voters, is filled with coffeehouses and micropubs, most of which offer free Wi-Fi. The Apple Store in Pioneer Place is a techie mother ship, but if you’d rather embrace the city’s recycling spirit, check out the Free Geek thrift shop, filled with gently used tech gear. When you get hungry, download the Food Carts Portland Mobile app, a handy guide to the city’s more than 600 much-loved food trucks.
No. 5 Denver
The Mile High City is home to Qwest, Lockheed Martin, and a tech company that liberated road trippers everywhere—MapQuest. You’ll find plenty of techies (and sports bars) in the DTC (or Denver Tech Center) neighborhood, but Denverites are not the stereotypical nerd types. AFC voters crowned the locals as the fittest people in the U.S.
No. 6 Boston
AFC voters love Beantown’s mix of bookish history buffs and passionate sports fans—as well as the locals’ indefatigable civic pride. While Boston’s wireless connections rank only at No. 16, you can soak up the tech energy in the Cambridgeport neighborhood. Look for savvy locals at the MIT Museum, at the bar Miracle of Science, or the Middlesex Lounge, which hosts regular “NerdNites.”
No. 7 Providence, RI
This artsy city—ranked in the AFC’s top three for theater—also loves its tech. The old Jewelry District is morphing into the Knowledge District, featuring 38 Studios—a video game company started by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling—and AS220, an arts space that offers a bar and intriguing classes such as a “brain machine workshop.”
No. 8 San Diego
This beach city thrives on both biotech and telecom; even the Chargers NFL team pays homage to hometown company Qualcomm. When in need of a break, local engineers and chemists can flex other muscles outdoors—taking advantage of the near-perfect weather—and unwind with the city’s renowned craft beers. Download the Giskin Anomaly app for a cool scavenger hunt through rambling Balboa Park, then use the Tap Hunter app to see which craft beers a bar has on tap.
No. 9 Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Twin Cities are home to some of the smartest locals in the AFC survey, who also ranked well for their tech know-how. Minneapolis was one of the first U.S. cities to go wireless, and has a strong history of tech start-ups: a local launched Geek Squad here in 1994 with just $200 and his bicycle. Despite the cold, non-bike-friendly winters, Minneapolis/St. Paul also ranked near the top with readers for its city parks.
No. 10 Kansas City, MO
The local wireless coverage is a hit with AFC voters, and its Internet access may soon be the envy of other cities: Google is building an ultra-high-speed broadband network here that’s 100 times faster than what most of us use. For free Wi-Fi and a cup of the locals’ favorite coffee, check out The Roasterie Café.
No. 11 Philadelphia
What would Ben Franklin have thought of the Comcast Experience HD wall? At the corner of 17th and Arch, in the Comcast HQ, the 2,100-square-foot LED screen runs footage of natural and urban landscapes at five times the quality of normal HD. Granted, most people come to Philly to marvel at pieces of historic low tech (such as parchment and that broken bell). But to rub elbows with local techies, pull up a stool at National Mechanics, an Old City restaurant that features homemade lighting fixtures and beloved microbrews.
No. 11 Salt Lake City
Residents did not score as being terribly tech-savvy—they landed at No. 20—but their No. 2 rank for wireless prowess helped Salt Lake City approach the top 10 techiest. You can access your free signal while walking down the city’s Main Street, ice skating at the city’s Gallivan Center, or sitting on the light rail. Voters also loved the city’s other crystal-clear qualities: it’s clean, safe, and easy on the wallet.
No. 13 San Juan, Puerto Rico
Travelers come here to get away from their BlackBerrys and email, right? While your boss doesn’t need to know it, the Puerto Rican capital does actually offer a solid Wi-Fi connection. Voters, however, were even more dazzled by San Juan’s simple pleasures like the highly ranked cafés and ethnic cuisine.
No. 14 Chicago
The latest gadgets and connection speeds don’t seem to be a top priority for Chicagoans, at least according to AFC voters. They did give the city high marks for its architectural sights, live music, and cool design stores. Between outings, refuel at a popular free-Wi-Fi café, such as Metropolis or Argo Tea Café.
No. 15 Portland, ME
AFC voters gave these New Englanders special credit for not being the types to text behind the wheel: the Maine locals ranked first for both driving ability and for making you feel safe. If you want to step up your culinary savvy in this foodie city, download the iLobster or Feast on Maine apps, which can help you find the local delicacy, and then crack into it like a pro.
No. 16 Savannah, GA
This southern city may be old school when it comes to the appealing antique shops, parks, and romantic vibes, but it also ranked in the top 10 for great wireless signals. If you want to make a connection within the “other side” in this famously haunted city, download the Wicked Walks Savannah app, which will lead you to the best ghost-chasing spots.
No. 17 New York City
New Yorkers love their electronic devices, but sometimes get stymied by the so-so Wi-Fi coverage. Rather than blame all those tall buildings, stake out some green space. Several NYC parks, including Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, now have free Wi-Fi. It’s a nice perk in a city that AFC voters generally deemed expensive. For other cheap thrills, check out the great street food and the fabulous by-the-slice pizza.
No. 18 Los Angeles
Sure, the locals are good-looking and stylish, according to voters, but the city took knocks in the survey for being unfriendly, car-centric, and for dropping your calls like they were from B-list movie stars. That said, L.A. county does have some hotspots for your tablet, smartphone, or laptop: all of Hermosa Beach, Echo Park, and Venice, to name a few. If you’re near Union Station, try the all-natural desserts at Chimney Coffee House, which gets raves for offering both free Wi-Fi and free parking.
No. 19 Washington, D.C.
While D.C. has a reputation for being smart and tech-savvy, something about communication gets lost in translation. Our nation’s capital ranked a dead-zone-prone No. 27 for its wireless signals. Voters love the iconic museums, however, and tech can help you make the most of it: the National Park Service, for instance, offers apps to guide you around the historic Mall.
No. 19 Las Vegas
Plenty of visitors to this wild city may conveniently turn off their phones during their stay—or blame the humdrum wireless coverage for not keeping in touch with folks back home. Even if you don’t need a strong connection, keep that camera phone ready: AFC voters ranked Vegas second for both memorable people-watching and its bar scene.