America's Best Cities for Winter Travel 2010
New York public relations exec Bruce Stoff once stayed an entire winter in Santa Fe, and remembers most the smell of piñon, the predominant firewood in the area. “Every fireplace and woodstove in the city becomes an incense burner,” Stoff says. “I found the aroma just intoxicating.”
Related: America's Best Cities for Winter Travel
Maybe it was that scent that helped the New Mexico city stay in the Top 10 for winter travel in this year’s Travel + Leisure America’s Favorite Cities survey. Travel + Leisure readers were asked to rank 35 great American cities in 54 categories, including all-in-one resorts, romantic potential, or how easy it is to get around town. This year, seven new cities entered the survey—spanning from Anchorage to Savannah—and three of them landed in the top five for winter travel.
When we looked at the overall rankings, a few things were not surprising: extra-cold or winter-gray cities such as Anchorage, Minneapolis, and Seattle fell into the bottom five out of the 35.
But when we looked at winter’s top 20 cities, we didn’t always find big escapes from the cold. Granted, sunny island cities did pretty well: Honolulu came in second place, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, placed third.
But Florida—whose state bird could be the poolside-lounger-seeking snowbird—had two disappointing results this year. Orlando, which was No. 1 for winter trips in the 2009 survey, fell to a ho-hum No. 12 this year, while Miami came in at No. 15. Meanwhile, America’s first-place city for weather, San Diego, ranked in between, at No. 13.
The message? While warm temps are great, AFC readers will put up with some rain or a few chilly breezes as long as there are fun things to do. New Orleans (No. 7), for instance, has a rather famous annual event that tends to happen in late February or early March, which may give the rest of winter a certain Mardi Gras vibe.
Meanwhile, cities with excellent indoor culture—museums, theater, classical music—helped AFC voters overlook the occasional winter storm or dreary day. In Santa Fe (No. 8), besides all that great firewood, you have access to skiing a half hour outside the city, and great art and shopping in town. “It’s also the best value time of year to go there,” says John Clifford, president of agency International Travel Management. That’s good news, since AFC voters didn’t consider Santa Fe a bargain most of the time.
And in other cities, winter may be the season where you finally get a great place to yourself. “In Charleston during winter, you can walk or ride around the gorgeous Charleston Battery district with few other tourists,” says local public relations exec Beth Cleveland. “You can get restaurant reservations downtown any night of the week,” she adds, “and you can walk on the beach year-round.” So what if it’s too chilly to take a dip? “It’s still warmer than wherever you’re likely traveling from.”
No. 1 SaltLake City
The winner this year is also a new entry to the AFC, and it’s the only truly snowy city in the Top 10. Not only do you have easy access to slopes, you also enjoy great value—it’s the No. 2 affordable city. Salt Lake makes for a gleaming winter wonderland too: it ranks No. 1 for being clean.
No. 2 Honolulu
The Hawaiian capital is holding tight to its No. 2 spot from 2009. Its great weather (No. 2) also helps it maintain its top showing as a relaxing and romantic vacation. Just be warned: Honolulu also ranks near the bottom for affordability.
No. 3 SanJuan, P.R.
The island high season is likely a big factor in Puerto Rico’s top three debut for winter. Being No. 3 for weather and No. 4 for cocktails probably doesn’t hurt, either. It’s not just about lazing on the beach, though: San Juan also ranks in the Top 10 for historical monuments.
No. 4 Savannah
Another new entry to the AFC this year, this southern city is a serious crowd-pleaser, ranking first in the overall quality of life category, while also ranking third for shopping and second for romance. The only Savannah season AFC readers like more than winter? Fall, for which it ranks No. 1.
No. 5 Phoenix/Scottsdale
This desert city inched up one slot since 2009, but it has always been a no-brainer for the winter—a blessing, since it ranks in last place for summer visits. The golfer haven ranks No. 2 for all-in-one resorts and No. 6 for luxury hotels.
No. 6 SanAntonio
The city’s Riverwalk gets all decked out during the holidays, but after the New Year the cattle drive through the city streets and the rodeo rule the winter. The all-ages city—its SeaWorld and Six Flags are open year round—also ranks in the Top 10 for family vacations.
No. 7 NewOrleans
Even if its most famous party of the year falls a little late this year—on March 8—the Crescent City still carries that Mardi Gras mojo in the wintertime. The city fell three slots this year for winter trips, but it’s still No. 2 for wild weekends and No. 1 for soul-warming cocktails.
No. 8 SantaFe
Shopping, soaking up culture, and sitting by the fire—they all sound pretty good. Artsy Santa Fe is the No. 1 cultural getaway and lands in the top five for antique stores, indie boutiques, and vintage shops. It also ranks fourth for its boutique hotels—which may have the popular piñon wood burning in the fireplace.
No. 9 NewYork City
For a lot of AFC voters, winter travel in the Big Apple probably means making the most of holiday festivities. But after the big ball in Times Square has dropped, you’ll find fewer crowds at Broadway shows (NYC ranks No. 1 for theater), inside those great museums (No. 2), and in line for a slice of that great pizza (No. 3).
No. 10 Charleston
While winter is not so blustery here, there are still plenty of places to get cozy: this southern city ranks first for both its B&Bs and its stylish boutique hotels. And just a nod from a local generates a kind of warmth: Charleston is home to the friendliest, most attractive locals in the AFC survey.
No. 11 Denver
While it’s a major hub for getting to Colorado ski resorts, the Mile High City may have been kept out of the Top 10 this year because of the long drive between the airport and the slopes. Even so, it climbed into the No. 1 spot for access to the great outdoors, and it’s No. 1 for active locals. AFC readers just might like Denver better without the snow—it ranks No. 6 for summer travel.
No. 12 Orlando
How the mighty have fallen. Last year, this theme-parkopolis ranked No. 1 for winter travel. According to AFC readers, though, winter is still the best season for coming here; summer ranks a bleak 60-minute-lines No. 30. The city is still tops with families, though—and for all-in-one resorts.
No. 13 SanDiego
The No. 1 city for weather is an obvious magnet for winter travelers as well as for families (No. 4), who can make the most of low-season crowds at Legoland, SeaWorld, and the famous San Diego Zoo. But if you want to keep up with the active locals (No. 2), be prepared to use a wetsuit when you surf—the ocean’s pretty chilly in winter.
No. 14 Nashville
It may have slipped four spots since 2009, but Music City still rules in a few categories that make it appealing during any season: it’s No. 1, no surprise, for live music and No. 1 for being a good bang for your buck. It also offers low stress, ranking No. 6 among the safest cities.
No. 15 Miami
Why did the city that nearly invented snowbirds fall three slots and rank only in the middle of the survey? Maybe it was the high prices in town (No. 32 for affordability), the crowds (it ranks No. 30 for peace and quiet), or that not-so-welcome feeling (its locals came in at No. 32 for friendliness).
No. 16 Houston
As the next-to-last-place city for summer travel (this oil town gets mighty muggy), Houston offers a big relief to visitors in winter. Its public parks rank a stay-in-the-car No. 30 with AFC readers, and the best activities are all indoors: museums and classical music (both No. 11) and chowing down on burgers (No. 1).
No. 17 Austin
Some locals say there are just two seasons in Austin: summer and January. So while you can get some cold snaps here, they don’t get in the way of Austin’s year-round charms: great live music (No. 2), cool shopping (No. 7 for vintage shops and flea markets), and plentiful Shiner Bock beer (No. 2 for its bar scene).
No. 18 KansasCity
You aren’t dodging any real winter weather here, but having to warm up the rental car is a small price to pay for the third most affordable city and its warm-you-from-the-inside barbecue (No. 2). It also ranks a respectable No. 14 for its museums and galleries.
No. 19 SanFrancisco
Dropping only one slot since 2009, this city full of culture and good eats is that much cozier during the relatively mild, if drippy, winters. Its big-name restaurants (No. 5), ethnic food (No. 4), and coffee bars (No. 3) go well with the top five rankings for museums (No. 5), theater (No. 4), and classical music (No. 4).
No. 20 LasVegas
Who cares—or knows—what season it is in Vegas? The only loss during winter may be that your hotel’s outdoor pool is closed. Presumably, Vegas’s best things are nicely enclosed or fluorescent-lit anyway: it’s the No. 1 city for luxury hotels, No. 2 for luxury shopping, and No. 1 for wild weekend potential.