America's Best Cities for Ice Cream
“We don’t do weird ice cream just for the sake of being weird,” insists owner Jenny Piper. “But we don’t mind an unusual combination—we want our creations to be delicious first.”
That tasty sense of adventure helped Nashville place in the top three for the nation’s best ice cream, according to Travel + Leisure readers. In the America’s Favorite Cities survey—where readers rank features of 35 different U.S. metro areas—Nashville also scored near the top for affordability and live music.
These days, in the other top 20 ice cream cities, it’s not hard to find creative flavors like the Pied Piper’s: the artisan, locally sourced approach that has transformed regional craft beers and food carts has also worked its way into the ice cream industry—and into foodies’ hearts. Especially perhaps in July (also known as National Ice Cream Month), you can find an ever-changing array of ice cream out there, from goat-cheese-and-cashew-caramel in Chicago to chocolate smoked sea salt or jalapeño in San Francisco.
Granted, some frozen flourishes still fall flat during that crucial, tiny-spoon-sample phase at the counter. Piper’s most exquisite flop, she says, was chocolate wasabi. “It kind of tasted like a zesty, chocolate-dipped dill pickle,” she admits. “But if something doesn’t work, you just try another idea the next day.”
See all the America’s Favorite Cities survey results!
No. 1 Savannah, GA
The ice cream champion also won the survey for its lovely buildings, fall weather, and quaint atmosphere, which includes a flair for old-school ice cream. Leopold’s is a classic parlor that dates back to 1919 and makes single-batch flavors such as old-style tutti-frutti and more newfangled options such as Guinness and Japanese cherry blossom. During summer, another hot spot is the famous Sugar Shack on Tybee Island, a longtime family-owned operation with floats, frosties, and classic flavors such as piña colada and banana pudding.
No. 2 Providence, RI
Providence is the overall No. 1 eating-and-drinking city, according to readers. Foodies will love the macaron ice cream sandwiches at Ellie’s Bakery, an offshoot of renowned Gracie’s, while coffee lovers will appreciate the ice cream (coffee bean, coffee Oreo, coffee crunch) at Three Sisters. To try the city’s highly ranked street food, check out PVD Pops, a bicycle-operated pushcart selling pudding pops in flavors such as pumpkin chocolate chip and pineapple basil.
No. 3 Nashville
Aside from open-mic nights, an ice cream parlor might be the finest way to mingle with Music City’s twangy locals, who ranked as the friendliest in the nation. East Nashville has the city’s hipsters, plenty of microbrews, and the most cutting edge ice cream: check out Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams—with flavors such as whiskey pecan—and the Pied Piper, which pulls off both a pear sorbet with a Cabernet reduction and the Lady Goo-Goo, a chocolate ice cream blended with marshmallows and chopped, homegrown Goo Goo Clusters.
No. 4 San Francisco
While the Bay Area struck readers as being fairly expensive, gourmet ice cream makes for a simple luxury. At Bi-Rite Creamery and Bakeshop in the Mission District, one side of the shop makes the brownies, cookies, and marshmallows that go into ice cream like the ricanelas (cinnamon with snickerdoodles). Nearby, Humphry Slocombe on Harrison Street touts foodie-forward flavors such as chocolate smoked sea salt, jalapeño, and a Jesus Juice sorbet.
No. 5 San Diego
Southern California may be awash with self-serve frozen yogurt shops, but you can also find cool alternatives in San Diego’s Normal Heights neighborhood: Mariposa Ice Cream, run by a fourth-generation dairy farmer, offers elegant flavors such as white chocolate raspberry ripple and Mexican chocolate, while at Viva Pops, you can get an updated version of Mexican paletas—popsicles in flavors such as cucumber chili, lavender lemonade, and pear vanilla rose. Certainly, San Diego boasts the perfect conditions for ice cream enthusiasts: it ranked second in the survey for weather and No. 1 for the 4th of July.
No. 6 Portland, ME
In this city that hits its peak in the summertime, ice cream ranked in the survey right between two other staples: beer and coffee. In the Old Port, Captain Sam’s Ice Cream employs local ingredients, such as Maine blueberries, and abstract flavor names (a rocky road–like flavor is dubbed One Time at Band Camp). On Fore Street, two gelato shops pay a microbrewery-level attention to detail: the Gelato Fiasco boasts small-batch flavors (and no corn syrup), while Gorgeous Gelato uses only Maine milk and organic cane sugar.
No. 7 Austin, TX
Amy’s—a pioneer of mixed-in-flavor ice cream shops—is still an institution in this city that is loyal to its local chains. But the techie denizens of the Texas capital have a high threshold for edgy ice cream: Lick Ice Creams on South Lamar offers locally sourced creams that go into flavors like honeyed peaches with rosemary, cilantro lime, and Mexican marigold. You might also notice plenty of grown-ups ordering kid-size servings: the locals rank near the top of the survey for staying trim.
No. 8 Boston
Beantown embraces a wide range of tastes, for ice cream and otherwise: after all, the city ranks No. 2 for both classical music and sports bars. At Christina’s in Cambridge, 50 rotating flavors range from chocolate chip to burnt sugar, herbal chai, and champagne sorbet. The city’s 21st-century ice cream food truck is Frozen Hoagies, which does made-to-order ice cream sandwiches (say, Nutella cookies with java crunch ice cream) and turns up in SoWa Market and the Charlestown Navy Yard.
No. 9 Honolulu
In a city where so many products have been imported from somewhere else, Bubbies, near the University of Hawaii area, boasts that everything is homemade. Try the mochi, the little bite-size ice cream balls—say, of adzuki bean, green tea, or chocolate espresso—wrapped in a rice confection. To sample the island’s famous ice cream cousin, shaved ice, head to Waiola Shave Ice, which dates back to 1940. Certainly, both ice and ice cream are year-round indulgences: the city ranked in the survey’s top 10 for family trips and for visits any time of year.
No. 10 New York City
The Big Apple scored big for fine dining and high fashion—and the city’s fabulous Italian ices, often sold in pizza places, are timeless classics. But to taste the next trends in ice cream, try the West Village’s Victory Garden, which creates soft-serve ice cream using goat’s milk (better for folks with lactose intolerance, and lower in fat than cow’s milk). Flavors include chocolate, salted caramel, and floral-tasting mastic (which promises to freshen your breath too). It’s a five-minute walk to the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, fitting for a city that won kudos for welcoming LGBT visitors.
No. 11 Charleston, SC
Folks in this South Carolina city have excellent palates and a lot of civic pride. The local favorite for frozen treats, Sweet CeCe’s on South Market, reflects those qualities: it uses fruit from nearby farms and has locally inspired flavors such as Low Country Peanut Butter and East Bay Vanilla and southern comforts such as apple pie à la mode. Just try not to drip from your cone: the city also ranked near the top for its cleanliness.
No. 12 San Juan, P.R.
San Juan, which scored highly for its good-looking locals and its charming scenery, features plenty of frozen-treat carts—some selling shaved ice or piraguas and others offering ice cream, typically in coconut, pineapple, and parcha (passion fruit). If you want to be more adventurous, check out the Heladeria Georgetti, in the Rio Piedras area, where you can try sweet potato, tamarind, and mamey zapote, a fruit considered by some to be an aphrodisiac—and perhaps one reason why San Juan ranked highly for romance.
No. 13 New Orleans
In the No. 1 city for live music and offbeat locals, the local twist on frozen delights is the stuffed sno-ball: a scoop of ice cream buried inside a snow cone (look for it at Original New Orleans Sno-Balls and Smoothee, in Gentilly). Catering to the city’s cocktail-loving crowd, meanwhile, is Creole Creamery in Lakeview and Uptown, which alongside classic flavors offers mimosa, mojito, and margarita sorbets. It also offers the Tchoupitoulas sundae, with eight scoops and eight toppings.
No. 14 Philadelphia
Philly got props in the survey for being cultured, with great museums and plenty of free things to do. While the Franklin Fountain on Market Street may not date back to Benjamin’s days, it offers nostalgic flavors such as a salty-almond version of rocky road (first created after the market crash in 1929) and a wintergreenish teaberry, like the vintage chewing gum. Capogiro (with four locations, including Rittenhouse Square and Passyunk), meanwhile, serves authentic Italian gelato flavors like hazelnut and Sicilian pistachio.
No. 15 Orlando, FL
In this kid-friendly town, ice cream stands and parlors may be the equivalent of coffee joints in Seattle: essential to everyday life. Away from the theme parks, check out Twisted Bliss in Ivanhoe Village—with ice cream–filled waffle tacos—or Lu Lu’s Ice Cream Shop in Winter Park, which is housed in a cottage that could be next door to the seven dwarfs’ place, and prides itself on using Florida milk and produce. Orlando also ranked well in the survey for abundant hotel options and places to visit at Christmas.
No. 16 Kansas City, MO
Ice cream may be the perfect palate-cleanser for Kansas City’s survey-winning barbecue. A new local favorite is Glacé Artisan Ice Cream, launched by local chocolatier Christopher Elbow, where you can order chocolate flake blackberry or the seasonal sweet corn. Old-school favorites include Foo’s Fabulous Frozen Custard and Murray’s Homemade Ice Creams, which has a rotating menu of more than 200 flavors (including Yesterday’s Cookies, featuring chunks of the shop’s famous day-old cookies).
No. 17 Portland, OR
In a city that takes its beer, food trucks, and donuts quite seriously, locavore Portland is giving increasing attention to ice cream. At Salt & Straw, you can order scoops flavored with the local microbrews, as well as gourmet staples such as balsamic strawberry with cracked pepper. At Ruby Jewel, if you struggle to choose among the flavors—brown sugar sour cream or caramel with salted dark chocolate—you can order a wine-bar-style flight of six mini-scoops, great for sharing.
No. 18 Minneapolis/St. Paul
The long winters may chill some appetites for ice cream, but the Twin Cities still slid into the top 20, thanks perhaps to being the No. 1 city for summer. Three of the area’s best ice cream spots are found in St. Paul: the summer-only Conny’s Creamy Cone, with 24 soft-serve flavors; Grand Ole Creamery, where you’ll find a malted milk ball at the bottom of each homemade waffle cone; and relative newcomer Izzy’s—about to set up shop on Minneapolis’s riverfront with grown-up flavors like Norwegian chai, Irish Moxie (with Jameson whiskey), and dark chocolate Zin. You can work it off hiking through the city’s highly ranked parks.
No. 19 Los Angeles
In this sunny city full of personal assistants and personal trainers, it’s no wonder that you get personalized scoops at the Ice Cream Lab in Beverly Hills, where your dessert is made on the spot with individual machines. Flavors include the Blue Velvet, a vanilla flecked with azure cake. In Santa Monica, try the all-organic Sweet Rose Creamery, which offers seasonal flavors such as roasted apricot buttermilk sherbet and candied cherry with granola.
No. 20 Chicago
The Windy City clearly makes an impression as a good eating and drinking destination: it ranked near the top of the survey for ethnic cuisine, burgers, and pizza. It also squeaked into the top 20 for offering frozen treats. At Wicker Park’s Black Dog Gelato, you can sample foodie flavors like goat-cheese cashew caramel and sesame fig chocolate chip, or an ice cream bar that tips its hat to the city’s lively bar scene: the Whiskey Bar is a booze-soaked gelato on a stick, dipped in chocolate then rolled in salty, crumbled bacon.