By Sara Clemence
July 08, 2020
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This year’s World’s Best Awards survey closed on March 2, just before widespread stay-at-home orders were implemented as a result of COVID-19. The results reflect our readers’ experiences before the pandemic, but we hope that this year’s honorees will inspire your trips to come — whenever they may be.

Travel + Leisure readers have a soft spot for Southern cities. Sure, they enjoy high-octane New York and amiable Chicago, but when it comes to naming the U.S. cities they most adored this year, travelers turned to smaller — though no less vibrant — towns on the lower half of the map.

Every year for our World’s Best Awards survey, Travel + Leisure asks readers to weigh in on travel experiences around the globe — to share their opinions on the top cities, islands, cruise ships, spas, airlines, and more. Readers rated cities on their sights and landmarks, culture, cuisine, friendliness, shopping, and overall value.

Of this year’s top 15 urban centers, eight are in the American South. They are cities where the past is still very present, including Williamsburg, which ranked No. 12. Especially popular with families, the Virginia town turns a holiday into a living history lesson. Travelers can get a taste of early America at Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown Settlement, as well as more contemporary flavors at local restaurants. “There are some really fabulous, hidden gems,” enthused one T+L reader.

Soulful, romantic Savannah comes in at No. 4. Readers marveled at its vintage beauty — the cobblestoned streets, oak-shaded squares, and lacy architecture — as well as the way the city keeps pace with the times. Eateries such as the Grey and Cotton & Rye put modern spins on traditional ingredients like grits (topped with foie gras) and crispy chicken (dusted with sumac). And the past few years have seen the arrival of several upscale accommodations, including 2019 T+L It List alum Perry Lane Hotel. “It has art, music, wonderful restaurants, and all the shopping you need,” remarked one reader.

New Orleans, a perennial favorite, came in No. 2 this year. Aficionados of the Big Easy love the serene residential neighborhoods as well as the raucous Mardi Gras parades, the street music as well as  the laid-back locals. One World’s Best voter offered a tip: “Stock up on antiques and pralines!” No doubt readers will be eager to return and support one of the U.S. cities hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic as soon as they’re able.

While a couple of the country’s very biggest cities made the list — New York came in 6th and Chicago 5th — many of the winners were smaller or midsize towns. Minneapolis/St. Paul (No. 14), Nashville (No. 11), and Asheville (No. 9) are big enough to be interesting (robust arts and culinary scenes, shops and markets featuring local makers of all stripes), but still small enough to feel manageable and welcoming. One tiny exception: Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Located just off the popular Highway 1 road-trip route, it has fewer than 4,000 residents — but views that draw many, many more.

Still, no city has yet to knock beloved Charleston from its eight-year perch. Read on to find out why — and which other places made this year’s list of the best cities in the United States.

1. Charleston, South Carolina

Credit: Getty Images

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 87.29

Charleston has history, architecture, culture, pleasant weather, gracious locals, and even proximity to the beach. But chances are, if you were to ask T+L readers for their top reason for their obsession with this genteel city, they’d say the food. It doesn’t matter whether you opt for a homey hole-in-the-wall or a fancy establishment. “I've never had a bad meal in Charleston,” one T+L reader gushed. Still, we’d be remiss not to mention how much readers appreciate the city’s hospitality. As a World’s Best voter noted, part of the fun is “striking up conversations with the folks you meet along the way!”

2. New Orleans

Credit: Getty Images

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 87.03

“Everyone needs to experience NOLA at least once,” wrote one T+L reader. Make sure to venture beyond famous Bourbon Street to explore the city’s elegant residential quarters, sculpture-filled parks, and urbane Warehouse District. Its hotel scene has also been growing. One T+L favorite: the Hotel Peter & Paul, which was named to 2019’s It List of the world’s best new hotels.

3. Santa Fe, New Mexico

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WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 85.73

Earthy, arty Santa Fe continues to enchant readers with “the views of the mountains, the culture, the shopping, the restaurants, the wineries,” as one reader put it. You can admire centuries-old adobe architecture, browse dozens of galleries, and indulge in outdoor adventure — all in one visit.

4. Savannah, Georgia

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WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 85.57

It’s particularly known for its historic architecture and moss-draped oaks. But Savannah isn’t mired in the past. It's fresh and creative, with contemporary galleries and quirky cafés — its food scene, in fact, has attracted global attention. “Savannah seems to have exploded every time I visit,” wrote one fan. “The oldies but goodies are still there…but there is always something new and different.”

5. Chicago

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WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 83.78

This Midwestern city impresses with world-class museums, starchitect-designed skyscrapers, design-forward hotels, and innovative restaurants. “You could spend a week just around downtown and still want more,” wrote one T+L reader.

6. New York City

Credit: Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 83.48

From Times Square to Wall Street, the Statue of Liberty to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York almost has too many icons to count. But, as any local will tell you, one of New York’s greatest pleasures is simply strolling its streets, coming upon one-of-a-kind shops, aromatic food carts, and impromptu performances. It’s this serendipity that keeps the city abuzz and keeps travelers coming back for more.

7. San Antonio, Texas

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Score: 82.20

It’s best known for its missions and downtown’s River Walk, but the Alamo City has so much more to offer. Think auto-repair shops that have been turned into taco joints, a landmark brewery that’s now a luxury hotel, and a brand-new art museum, Ruby City. Multiple readers chimed in to say how family-friendly San Antonio is, too.

8. Honolulu

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Score: 81.92

With all its abundant natural beauty, Hawaii isn’t exactly synonymous with urbanism. But T+L readers are adamant about not overlooking the state’s capital: “Honolulu is the most exciting and interesting city I've ever been in,” wrote one respondent. It offers travelers a dynamic variety of experiences, including vibrant markets, high-end shopping, the country’s only royal palace, and — of course — beaches. “Don’t go for less than seven days,” advised another voter.

9. Asheville, North Carolina

Credit: George Rose/Getty Images

Score: 81.91

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, this relatively petite city punches above its weight in cultural and culinary bounty. “The city is one big art walk,” wrote one T+L reader, who noted it also has “endless places to eat and drink.” Asheville’s friendly, eclectic personality also stood out to travelers. “Just sitting on a downtown bench you can feel the pulse of the city,” shared one respondent. “It has something for everyone. There is an abundance of hiking trails, and all of downtown is bustling with cute little stores. If you are visiting in the summer, there is the French Broad River for rafting…. I am always left wanting more.”

10. Austin, Texas

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Score: 81.63

“Small-town and big-city vibes” is how one T+L reader explained Austin’s appeal. Despite decades of growth, the Texan city has managed to keep a lot of its signature quirkiness while adding a healthy dose of sophistication. Several travelers applauded its famed music and nightlife. “You can meet new friends and dance the night away,” wrote one fan. But even more people praised the ever-diversifying food scene, which encompasses food trucks, pop-ups, breweries, cocktail bars, refined omakase, and — of course — barbecue.

11. Nashville

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Score: 81.08

It’s so much more than a honky-tonk town — though if you’re after energy-packed nightlife and live music, you won’t be disappointed. From the historic Grand Ole Opry to new James Beard Award-winning restaurants, industrial-chic hotels to cowboy-boot shops, there’s plenty to enjoy in Nashville. As one T+L reader put it: “We could not have had more fun if we tried.”

12. Williamsburg, Virginia

Credit: Getty Images

Score: 80.82

“A definite must for American history junkies,” wrote one T+L reader. The pocket-size city has three major historic sites: the Jamestown Settlement (English colonists arrived there in the early 17th century); Yorktown Battlefield (where the British surrendered); and Colonial Williamsburg (a living history museum, where employees work and dress as residents did in the 18th century). Travelers will find more contemporary attractions, too, including the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, historical houses, and a number of wineries and distilleries.

13. Washington, D.C.

Credit: Getty Images

Score: 80.26

“Our most majestic city,” enthused one T+L reader. But Washington isn’t just the Mall or the Neoclassical government buildings. In recent years, the American capital has undergone a hip transformation with the addition of new hotels (the Line DC and Conrad, among them), buzzy restaurants like Maydan and Estuary, and cultural spaces, such as the Glenstone just across the Potomac. “I’ve been many times but can always find new things to do,” wrote one reader.

14. Minneapolis/St. Paul

Credit: Joe Christensen/Getty Images

Score: 79.94

Though some months are brutally cold, it’s easier than one might think to take chilly weather in stride, thanks to the lakes and parks that seem magical even in mid-winter. But above all else, T+L readers can’t get enough of the multifaceted culinary scene. “So many craft cocktail places have opened, as well as a number of super fabulous restaurants,” one enthused.

15. Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Credit: Getty Images

Score: 79.91

Perched on California’s scenic Central Coast, Carmel has a white-sand beach backed by windswept trees and a charming village with English-style cottages. “Great for shoppers but so sweet to just walk through the narrow streets, dip into tiny alcoves of book stores and hidden Zen gardens, and walk up toward the playground and smell the pines,” mused one World’s Best voter. “On a hot day, walk to the shore and be enveloped by the natural beauty.” Echoed another, “Everything is a sight for sore eyes.” And don’t overlook the art scene — in just one square mile, Carmel has nearly 75 galleries.

See all of our readers' favorite hotels, cities, airlines, cruise lines, and more in the World's Best Awards for 2020.