To find the heart of New York City, you need the right shoes.
“I always seek out a city's charms on foot,” says Rachel Rudman, co-creator of the travel series How 2 Travelers. In the Big Apple, she says, walking gives her the thrill of “moving through a sea of people who are drastically different from one another, yet all working to make a life in the city,” while in Charleston, “every main street, alleyway and market feels as though it holds centuries of stories.”
Travel+Leisure readers would agree, placing both New York City and Charleston in the top 10 of uniquely charming cities. In this year’s America’s Favorite Cities survey, readers voted on dozens of features that make 38 cities special, from museums to bakeries and flea markets. To highlight the most bewitching cities, we combined the rankings for interesting architecture, pedestrian-friendly streets, quaint bookstores, a sense of history and a friendly atmosphere—and nice wine bars didn’t hurt, either.
Several winners had one thing in common: old neighborhoods that have found new life, with cobblestone streets as well as cool shops and little cafes. Otherwise, in some winning cities, charm means easy access to public art, or food truck pods where locals gather around the fire pit with guitars. One cozy city even has a self-proclaimed “snuggery.”
With most the winners, too, those walkable streets are key—assuming you stray off the tourist grid. Barri Bronston, author of Walking New Orleans, advises Crescent City visitors to do Bourbon Street once—then move on. “Take the Bywater neighborhood,” she says, “with its houses painted in vibrant purples, oranges, and blues. Until I walked its streets, I had no idea how cool it really was. I’m a life-long resident of New Orleans, but I always feel like I’m discovering something new.”
No. 20 Baltimore
The town that dubbed itself Charm City—granted, as a long-ago marketing strategy—clearly has planted its flag in the charming top 20. (That flag may be a freak flag, though: the locals also made the top 10 for being offbeat.) Baltimore also scored in the top 10 for historic appeal—like Fell’s Point, the waterfront community that that was once the nation’s second-largest immigration point, after Ellis Island. To experience the neighborhood to the fullest, stay at boutique hotel Admiral Fell Inn (once the home of the Seamen’s YMCA) and enjoy one the city’s highly ranked dive bars, The Horse You Came In On—which was likely a dive even when it first opened in 1775.
No. 19 Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh’s most charming area does not ignore the Rust Belt’s industrial roots—instead, it embraces it. Just north of downtown, the Strip District was once the home of Andrew Carnegie’s first mills as well as the nerve center of the city’s produce markets. Today, it’s the home of the Pittsburgh Public Market, Pittsburgh Opera and the modern-dance Attack Theatre. The city also ranked at No. 6 for its pizza, like the classic Neapolitan at Il Pizzaiolo in Market Square and downtown’s Proper Brick Oven and Tap Room. Charming or not, the locals won the survey for being the most enthusiastic sports fans.
No. 18 Seattle
Even if it’s a first stop for many tourists, nothing exudes the charm of Seattle—and can make you feel like a flowers-and-fruit-buying local—quite like wandering the 9-acre Pike Place Market. But a block or so away from the market’s salmon-tossing workers, the charm factor compounds on Post Alley; the brick-paved detour features spots like The Pink Door, which serves candlelit Italian cuisine and quirky live shows like Eastern European jazz and trapeze acts. Seattle also came in at No. 2 for its coffee: one of the most relaxing places to enjoy it is at the café in the Elliott Bay Book Store, where you can also see why the charmingly rainy city ranked at No. 3 for its bookstores.
No. 17 Cleveland
Forget the old jokes about this industrial town, which has elegantly cultivated its old-school charms. The nerve center of its appeal is in the Victorian-era Tremont neighborhood, once settled by immigrants and now home to Prosperity Social Club, a lounge set in a former ballroom, which has craft beer, Polka music and pierogies. To embrace the city’s civic pride, pick up a t-shirt that reads “Buck Yes” or “I Liked Cleveland Before It Was Cool” at downtown’s CLE Clothing.
No. 16 Atlanta
Readers love Atlanta for deftly walking the line between historic charm and buzz-worthy cool. You’ll find both at the Swan House in Buckhead's Atlanta History Center: you can chat with costumed character guides at the 1920s mansion’s Open House tours—or, you can take its Capitol Tour, and see how the house was used in the film The Hunger Games. The Georgia hub also worked its way into readers’ hearts by way of their stomachs, ranking at No. 2 for Southern-comfort diners: At Buckhead’s old-style Highland Bakery, for instance, you can tuck into both sweet-potato pancakes and sweet-potato biscuits. Another heartwarming touch: at downtown’s Mary Mac’s Tea Room, the hostess still offers free back rubs at your table.
No. 15 Philadelphia
Quaint streets all over the U.S. don’t have much on Elfreth's Alley, the tiny cobblestone road in Philly that boasts of being the oldest continuously lived-on street in the nation (you can tour the old homes once a year, on June’s Fete Day). Beyond that one street, though, the cradle of democracy gets high marks from readers for being both historic and pleasantly accessible—like the Society Hill and the Rittenhouse areas, offering gracefully restored lodgings like Rittenhouse 1715. Even some newer places can’t resist a little old-style appeal—like Random Tea Room in the Northern Liberties area, which features a Curiosity Shop of antiques alongside a 21st-century massage room.
No. 14 Albuquerque
The New Mexico city made the top 10 for festivals, thanks to lovely parties like October’s International Balloon Fiesta. But this farm-friendly town also wooed readers with its literal cornucopia of edible delights: Casa Rondeña Winery, for instance, has wine-growing roots that go back to the 1600s. For down-to-earth lodging, stay at the 25-acre Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm, whose crops include lavender, casaba melons and endangered Chimaya chilies. The city also ranked near the top for being affably kooky, like Albuquerque Alpacas’ charming sweaters, socks and dyed yarns (as well as plenty of live, fleece-producing alpacas).
No. 13 Nashville
Music City’s magnetism comes in part from its people: it ranked at the top of the survey for friendly locals. But its revamped older neighborhoods let this city of music-industry high rollers keeps its homey vibe. In the 12 South neighborhood, for instance, you can wander the bungalow-lined streets, browse in boutiques likeWhite’s Mercantile (offering such down-home delights as locally sourced grits and biscuit mix) or sit at coffeehouse-and-wine-barFrothy Monkey, where you can sip your Merlot from a quaint jelly jar. 12 South is also home to some of the city’s highly ranked barbecue: Edley's Bar-B-Que, which smokes its brisket and ribs using local White Oak wood.
No. 12 Houston
The quaint factor in this giant business hub may not be immediately obvious, but voters still applauded the city on a variety of civilized features, from its top-ranked gourmet groceries, like Revival Market, to museums like the soothing Rothko Chapel. To get a sense of the city from earlier (and smaller) times, go to the Historic Heights neighborhood, which is filled with homes from the 1800s, some lovely inns (like the restored, Queen Anne-style Sara’s Inn on the Boulevard) and cheeky establishments like Mighty Sweet Mini Pies and Alice’s Tall Texan (where a 20-ounce Lone Star beer, served in a frosty goblet, goes for just $2.50). Indeed, the Texas city also ranked in the top 10 for both bakeries and brews.
No. 11 San Francisco
The City by the Bay can be one giant photo op, with such iconic charmers as the Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars, and Alamo Square’s Painted Ladies. But if you want to spend a charming afternoon alongside the gourmand locals, browse the stalls at the Ferry Building Marketplace and its Saturday farmers market, or, sit at Caffe Trieste with a classic cappuccino and see why, even before the thoughtfully-made pour-overs of Blue Bottle and Ritual Roasters, the city has always been a winner for its coffee culture. Despite its chilly summers, San Francisco also made the top 20 for weather—proof that rolling fog offers plenty of atmospheric charm.
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