The Best Cities in North America 2015
"Those carriage tours are popular, but the city is so walkable that it's best experienced on foot," says Caroline Eubanks, an Atlantan whose travel blog focuses on the South. "You see much more interesting things this way—like narrow alleys with street art, plaques denoting historic homes, and the stamps on each brick that tell where they're from."
Indeed, sometimes the best way to embrace a city is to take it slow, and that's one reason Travel+Leisure readers love South Carolina's Holy City, ranking it among their favorite urban centers in North America. As part of the magazine's World's Best survey, Travel + Leisure readers voted on their favorite airports, cruise lines, islands, and hotels—and also ranked the world's greatest cities for features such as arts, shopping, dining, and romantic ambience.
Related: U.S. + Canada Travel Guide
Like Charleston, many of the top 20 winners in North America have a deep sense of history, while still cultivating modern features like craft breweries, coffee houses, and ever-evolving music scenes. But some regional stereotypes still persist in the survey: one winning category, friendliness, gave certain Southern cities in the U.S. a distinct advantage, thanks to their lilting accents and free refills on iced tea.
But one local from a Midwestern contender urges travelers to see past her hometown's own accent and bluster. "Based on our harsh winters and our track record with the Cubs, you'd think we'd be very bitter," says Chicago resident and independent-travel podcast co-host Kathy Pulkrabek. "But we're the first people to help wayward tourists on the street, or strike up a conversation in a bar." To start up your own chat in the Windy City, she adds, "just remember the three Bs: Bulls, Bears, and Blackhawks."
No. 20 Carmel by the Sea, California
Readers found this small city on California's central coast to be a little pricey, and the locals a little aloof—but who cares? It ranked at No. 1 in the U.S. for romance, thanks to its gorgeously rugged coastline, great local wines and posh, walkable downtown. You might swoon, for instance, over the moules frites or duck confit at Andre's Bouchée, a Mission Street French bistro with a 50-plus-page wine list (including bottles from nearby Silvestri Vineyards). Carmel is also known for its shopping—thanks to places like Jan de Luz, which offers a luxurious triple threat of French linens, antiques, and house-made olive oils.
No. 19 Williamsburg, Virginia
This historical hub ranked well for both value and a wealth of fascinating sights—like the Jamestown settlement, the I.M. Pei-designed Dewitt Wallace Museum of Decorative Arts or even the Public Hospital, the site of America's first insane asylum. One of the newest sights is actually breathing: he's a Briard pooch named Liberty, who has been known to ride shotgun in a carriage, with a costumed George Washington, around Colonial Williamsburg. To spend the night at a place endorsed by the Mother Country, stay at the 91-room Williamsburg Inn, the historic district hotel that has hosted Queen Elizabeth, and which will debut updated rooms this spring.
No. 18 Boston
The home of Faneuil Hall, Boston Common and Fenway Park scored highly in the survey for its cultural landmarks—but readers like that it isn't too stuck in the past. Take, for example, the new glass-and-steel home of the Institute of Contemporary Art, on Fan Pier, or even the rehabbed stage theater, The Brattle, which has become one of the best places to see indie films in Cambridge. Boston is also home to the survey's highest-ranking hotel bar in the United States: The Langham Hotel's palatial Bond Lounge, with its glittering chandeliers, 25-foot vaulted ceilings, and a Dom Perignon balcony lounge that looks out over the main room.
No. 17 Seattle
Washington's Emerald City impressed readers the most with its food—and for plenty of locals and visitors, coffee does count as food here. If you want to diversify beyond a certain omnipresent, homegrown brand, try Lost Lake Café, where you can start your day with a local favorite, Caffe Vita coffee, and a breakfast bread pudding or a smoked-salmon Benedict. To explore the culinary landscape beyond breakfast, stick around Capitol Hill, where you can try pizza by Seattle star chef Tom Douglas at Serious Pie, sample the steamed buns at Sichuan-inspired Lionhead or get a warm-and-gooey chocolate dessert at Hot Cakes. Given its collective sweet tooth and snuggle-friendly rainy weather, the city also scored well for romance.
No. 16 Nashville, Tennessee
The biggest impression that this Tennessee city made on survey voters was through its welcoming hospitality. It also got a high cultural score, in part because it has never shied away from its prime artistic export, country music. Bask in the glow of one of its legends at the new George Jones Museum (which has its own rooftop bar, The George, featuring live music), but keep in mind that Music City is not just about twang: you can hear a wide variety of beats at venues like The 5 Spot or the Tennessee branch of City Winery. Don't leave town, however, without trying the local dish with a serious kick: spicy hot chicken sandwiches, like the classics served at Prince's Hot Chicken Shack.
No. 15 Portland, Oregon
Readers' favorite thing to do in Portland, it seems, is to place an order: not only does the city rank highly for its thoughtful-but-indulgent cuisine, but it also made an impression for being a smokin' deal. Case in point: the treasure trove of economical food carts, like the falafel at Wolf & Bear's, the Peruvian-style chicken cart Polli-Tico or the Chinese breakfast crepes at Bing Mi! Readers also took note of Portland's craft beer scene. To broaden your appreciation for Oregon's fine brews, go to beer hall Loyal Legion, which has 99 beers on tap, including such Oregon gems as Pelican Funky Spot IPA or the Sasquatch Moby Dick IPA. Survey takers even love the process of getting here: Portland International Airport won as the readers' favorite hub in the United States and Canada.
No. 14 Washington, D.C.
Given its iconic skyline and plethora of notable museums and landmarks, it's no surprise the U.S. capital ranked on this list. The arts were key for readers, especially the city's extensive museum scene, which continues to both grow and stay current: The Smithsonian American Art Museum, for instance, recently debuted a revamped Renwick Gallery, featuring nine installations from artists such as Maya Lin. But D.C.'s vibrant culture also comes from its multicultural dining scene. Can't-miss spots include Maketto, with its Taiwanese fried chicken, and "global sandwich shop" Sundevich, with options like the Moscow (Russian salad with gherkins), the Paris (ham, eggs, gruyere) and the Tehran (mortadella and feta).
No. 13 Vancouver, B.C., Canada
This British Columbian seaport is evidence of how much readers love a metropolis surrounded by natural beauty. Vancouver also scored well for its global culture, made evident in shops around the city. Take home rare teas and Kombuchas from O5 Tea, Indian jewelry and crafts from Yaletown's Kaarigar or native arts from Coastal Peoples Fine Art Gallery. Its nightlife, meanwhile, maintains a pretty local bent, like the natural wines at Grapes and Soda or the homegrown beers at Powell Street Craft Brewery or Greenleaf Brewing Co.
No. 12 Austin, Texas
The state capital and college town has long been known for its music scene, and readers love the venues that have been around for years—like the two-stepping Broken Spoke, or South Congress' more rocking Continental Club—as well as hot newcomers like downtown's cocktail lounge and performance space The Townsend. Austin also earned high marks for its food and its sense of economy: you can combine the two at such classic Austin eateries as Torchy's Tacos (don't miss its standard-setting queso) and the Texas-barbecue-meets-New-York-deli food truck Micklethwait Craft Meats.
No. 11 Asheville, North Carolina
This city sitting between the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains made the top 20 for its blend of blue-blood heritage and modern hipster appeal. For the hipster side, check out the evening drum circles downtown, or the contemporary takes on Carolina barbecue, like the Porter-braised brisket at Smoky Park Supper Club. The city's hotels, meanwhile, offer an up-close glimpse of its pedigree: the Inn on Biltmore Estate, for instance, was originally constructed by Vanderbilts, while the Omni Grove Park Inn was once home to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Readers didn't feel like they needed a trust fund to visit the city, though; Asheville's value also made an impression on readers.
No. 10 Victoria, B.C., Canada
Even though it's pretty small compared to other top 20 winners, the British Columbian capital city (pop. 360,000) still made the top. One big reason? Its English-village features set amongst the skyscrapers, like the stained-glass Celtic windows at Christ Cathedral, the proper afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel, and the all-day beans-on-toast English breakfasts at Bartholomew's Pub, near Inner Harbor. Overwhelmingly, readers commented on one Victoria feature—Butchart Gardens, with its 55 acres of flowers and foliage, including a classic English rose gardens. The small town vibe is about more than just population, too: the locals were noted for being friendly.
No. 9 New York City
Gotham made the top 10 by easily trouncing the competition in a few categories: it ranked at No. 1 for shopping, dining, and culture in the U.S., even if you might bludgeon your own budget by experiencing it (it ranked near the top for feeling expensive). But it also ranked near the top for its city-that-never-sleeps nightlife, whether you are nipping into shot-sized "micro-cocktails" at East Village institution Holiday Cocktail Lounge, or feeling clubby at Raines Law Room, nearly hidden at the Midtown hotel The William. To enjoy one of the city's hot new affordable luxuries, pick up an everything bagel at Sadelle's in Soho.
No. 8 Chicago
Aside from that only-in-Chicago deep-dish pizza, two factors helped the Windy City make the top 10: great culture and landmarks. To combine a love of the city's public art and great theatre, check out the Statue Stories program, where you can swipe your phone across a statue and hear a short monologue from a notable local actor—like Jack McBrayer as Shakespeare, John C. Reilly as Lincoln or Bob Newhart as—well, himself, at his own statue on the Navy Pier. To experience some of the city's great shopping outside the Magnificent Mile, go to Andersonville, where you'll find shopping havens like Room Service, with its mid-century décor, or Andersonville Galleria, which has enough artsy merchants to support both felines (Go Cat Toys) and canines (Sophisticated Pup).
No. 7 Quebec City, Canada
Readers raved about this 400-year-old Canadian city, its palpably French personality, and unique sights, like Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That old-world character extends to the prime hotel in the city, the palatial Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, which was built in the late 19th century to look like a Renaissance building. For a contemporary taste of what some call Canada's national dish, poutine, take the short walk from the hotel to the burger-and-shake joint Le Chic Shack; its French-fry-based masterpieces come topped with red-ale braised beef and horseradish aioli or wild-mushroom ragout and shallots.
No. 6 San Francisco
The Bay Area metropolis made the list for its dining, culture, and romance: you can combine all three when you're sharing drinks and the views from the classic city bar Top of the Mark, or picking up cutting-edge, bean-to-bar goodies from Dandelion Chocolate. Proving that they're not all softies, the tech town also won for having the No. 1 business hotel in the country. The sleekly modern St. Regis San Francisco, whose meeting spaces include a huge terrace overlooking the soon-to-reopen SFMoMA, also offers the perfect way to celebrate the end of the work week: the "sabering" of a bottle of champagne, done on Thursday through Saturday evenings in the lobby.
No. 5 Santa Fe, New Mexico
Readers love how the Southwestern culture infuses everything in Santa Fe, from the centuries-old architecture to those ever-roasting chiles (which even find their way into the bonbons at Kakawa Chocolate House). Indeed, Santa Fe's distinctive dining is quite a draw, from the authentic New Mexican cuisine at Maria's, to newcomers like Georgia (next door to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum), where your steak frites comes with a side of garlic-fried yucca. To immerse yourself in the ambience, stay across from the Palace of the Governors at Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, with its sandstone walls, kiva fireplaces, and hand-woven rugs; readers voted it their favorite hotel in the whole state.
No. 4 Savannah, Georgia
The oldest city in Georgia made the top 10 for its historic landmarks—like Bonaventure Cemetery and the Mercer Williams House Museum, which figure prominently in the city's most-widely-associated book and movie, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. But part of the local culture in Savannah also comes from its affable locals and the lively nightlife (open containers can count as a legitimate fashion accessory). Spend happy hour at the elegant rooftop bar Perch, overlooking Forsyth Park; the cocktail menu includes such sturdy options as the Port side Gibson, with vodka, ruby port and onion juice.
No. 3 Mexico City, Mexico
The Mexican capital won an impressive number of categories among Latin-American cities: culture, shopping, and cuisine. And while plenty of readers come here, no doubt, to visit the Zócalo, or Plaza de la Constitución (it gets about 85 million visitors per year), a few restaurants are destinations in themselves. One is Pujol, featuring chef Enrique Olvera's forward-looking takes on authentic cuisine, like a suckling-pig taco with chickpea puree, coriander, and red jalapeño. Voters commented on the city's New York City-style fast pace, but they also raved about its parks. One not to miss: the ancient, waterfall-filled Chapultepec Park, which provided a relaxing green space for the ancient Aztecs.
No. 2 New Orleans
The Crescent City charmed readers with a one-two punch (and a spiked punch at that): it ranked at No. 2 in the nation for dining, and at No. 1 in the world for nightlife. No doubt readers loved iconic dining experiences like the oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's or the beignets at Café du Monde, but the city's biggest fans also know how to wander off the tourist grid for a fun evening—whether that means the free jazz clubs along Frenchmen Street or the new People's Health New Orleans Jazz Market in Central City. At the latter's Bolden Bar, you'll find free music Thursday through Saturday nights and craft cocktails like the Jelly Roll Morton (with Sazerac rye, bitters, blackberry mash, and lemon).
No. 1 Charleston, South Carolina
Urbane but quaint: This South Carolina city won the survey by balancing sophisticated tastes with small-town charm. Charleston is home to four out of the survey's top five small-city hotels in the U.S.: these boutique hotels tend to be rehabbed mansions, like the former cotton-baron home Wentworth Mansion, or the antiques-filled Planter's Inn, which dates back to 1844. Planter's Inn is also home to one of the best low-county restaurants in the city: Peninsula Grill, where you can start with oyster stew and wild-mushroom grits and finish with its signature coconut cake. Not only did these hospitable South Carolinians rank highly for their well-crafted local cuisine, but they also landed near the top of the survey for likeability.