The Best Cities in the United States

Ratings reveal unexpected travel surprises in 30 smaller cities.

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA

Though Pittsburgh’s iconic Iron City Ale is now produced an hour away in Latrobe, the Burgh is home to more than 30 craft breweries. Many of the suds are made and poured in rehabbed historic buildings, such as a decommissioned 1902 Catholic church (Church Brew Works) and a 19th-century school (11th Hour Brewing Co.). In the pipeline: a 50,000-square-foot brewpub/museum.

BOULDER, COLORADO

Topping our list in four categories, Boulder boldly leads with music venues, vintage clothing boutiques, and craft breweries. And there seem to be as many coffee shops as cyclists here, so it’s no surprise that several combo java joint/bike shops have opened recently. On downtown’s main Pearl Street drag, At Full Cycle sells wheels and gear as well as lattes and local beers. Cycling clubs crowd the minimalist café/bike shop Rapha for espresso, pre-ride waffles, and post-ride pastries.

GREENVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA

Now known for its start-up spirit and urbane downtown, Greenville makes our hot list for its number of butchers, delis, and steakhouses. Savor a steak at Halls Chophouse, then head to Falls Park, where a nearly 40-foot natural waterfall churns just off Main Street, and a pedestrian-only bridge curves gracefully overhead.

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA

With 5.98 coffee shops for every 10,000 residents, Alaska’s largest city (and cruise ship port) percolates with caffeine culture. Drive-up espresso shacks keep company with brick-and-mortar java shops like SteamDot, for pour-over brews, and the Kaladi Brothers, which toasts beans with a Sivetz Fluid Bed Roaster, a contraption that uses fresh, hot air to produce smooth blends.

ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND

The dog-friendly streets of Maryland’s brick-lined capital yield ye olde colonial charm—after all, the domed statehouse, which dates to 1772, is the country’s oldest in continuous use. Fido can’t come in during the guided tours, but many of the city’s lively harbor-front restaurants allow dogs on their patios, including the Middleton Tavern, where George Washington and other Founding Fathers once slurped oysters.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

Celebrating the 300th anniversary of its founding by the French in 1718, New Orleans still brims with authentic charm but is especially of-the-moment in the Warehouse District around Lafayette Square. Onetime grain and coffee storehouses have been converted into trendy bars, music clubs, and restaurants. At Sac-a-Lait, hyper-local bistro fare like alligator in pickled mustard sauce is served in a restored cotton mill. Hipster grand central: the new Ace Hotel in a renovated art deco mid-rise, where the action centers on a busy lobby with a curated musical stage that hosts local acts.

MADISON, WISCONSIN

The compact downtown and imposing statehouse of Wisconsin’s capital city crown a strip of land between Lakes Mendota and Monona. This means its many parks (11.6 per 10,000 residents) and trails come with stellar water views—and a bike-friendly culture. “They snowplow the bike trails here,” says resident Jennifer Dreyfus, who, like many locals, cycles to work. You can walk or pedal (Madison BCycle has wheels for rent) to green spots such as the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.

RENO, NEVADA

A large total of butchers, delis, and steak restaurants per capita helps make this mountain city among the meatiest in the U.S. Take Harrah’s Steak House, where they’ve been serving fillets and T-bones since 1937. While the red-meat palace (in Harrah’s casino) has had modern renovations, tuxedoed waiters and retro dishes (baked Alaska, oysters Rockefeller) keep the place feeling decidedly nostalgic. A forward-looking food-and-drink scene stakes its claim with Nothing to It!, a cooking school/gourmet deli, and the Eddy, a popular new outdoor hangout and beer garden with a synthetic-turf lawn and recycled shipping containers.

HEALDSBURG, CALIFORNIA

Though last summer’s wildfires devastated acres of Sonoma County, thanks to ample irrigation and spaced out grape plantings, Healdsburg’s vineyards were mostly spared. Neighbors banded together to put out blazes, and the inns, shops, and tasting rooms of this walkable town are open for business—including the newish, locavore Single Thread Farms, which serves an 11-course, Japanese-accented tasting menu in warm, wood-filled spaces, and has five guestrooms upstairs.

SANTA CRUZ, CALIFORNIA

Thanks to a clutch of music and record stores and live music venues, the beach town of Santa Cruz rates grooviest for rock and folk fans. At Streetlight Records, new and used CDs and LPs fill a warehouse-like space where local bands frequently gig. The Starving Musician sells African drums and electric guitars. The new Abbott Square restaurant-and-market zone downtown offers free Saturday night concerts, and the long-running Catalyst Club hosts big-name bands on the site of a former bowling alley.

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA

Instagrammers love Charleston’s abundance of art. Works by local artists will fill the rooms and public spaces of the new Hotel Bennett, opening this summer on a chunk of prime real estate overlooking Marion Square. It’s a great crash pad for checking out Charleston’s booming arts scene, which ranks high in our survey because of a large number of schools and galleries, like the Art Institute of Charleston and Helena Fox Fine Art. The latter specializes in works by southern artists such as West Fraser, known for his muted paintings of nearby Low Country. Performing arts shine at the grand, three-year-old Gaillard Center, which hosts concerts and dance shows and serves as one of the venues for the city’s celebrated Spoleto Festival, taking place May 25 to June 10 in 2018.

OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON

Washington’s state capital boasts an eye-opening number of coffee shops per capita, from Olympia Coffee (three locations in town) to the skull-art-decorated Burial Grounds. Once suitably caffeinated, head out to one of Olympia’s similarly list-topping green spaces, including 314-acre waterfront Priest Point Park.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA

In the sunny library at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, it’s easy to imagine the third U.S. president (and renowned bibliophile) poring over books at the ingenious adjustable reading table. Jefferson put his smarty pants ideas to work down the hill in Charlottesville, too, where the University of Virginia’s Academical Village includes a domed Rotunda and dorms surrounding a bucolic lawn. It’s due both to the high number of college grads—and bookstores—that the city ranks as the most literate in our survey.

SPOKANE, WASHINGTON

A high count of record stores, tattoo parlors, vintage clothing boutiques, and coffee shops per capita boosts Washington State’s second largest city to the top of our hipster-friendly and most caffeinated lists for its population category. Bearded and flannel-wearing locals often show up at Garageland, a gastropub/vinyl store downtown (note the dugout canoe hanging over the bar). Summertime outdoor music festivals bring bands and local brews to Riverfront Park, a 100-acre playground along the Spokane River.

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

New Mexico’s sunny city gets top nods for its abundance of craft brewpubs, such as downtown’s Marble Brewery and Bow & Arrow Brewery Co. The latter serves its unusual sour and aged ales in a cavernous hall lit with iron chandeliers. Local breweries also often partner with food trucks that park outside to cook up lamb burgers, green-chili-topped hot dogs, and spicy Southwestern-style pizza.

RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA

George Washington and Ronald Reagan stand across the street from each other in this South Dakota city near Mount Rushmore—or rather, their bronze, life-size statues do, just begging to be posed with. The ongoing public art/history project called City of Presidents has been erecting likenesses of each commander in chief on downtown corners since 2000. Topping a hill nearby, the Dinosaur Park lures families with its whimsical (if biologically inaccurate) concrete models of T. rex and other dinos, plus dazzling views of the Black Hills and Badlands beyond.

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN

Nicknamed “Tree Town,” Ann Arbor lives up to its name with a recently funded plan to plant more than 1,000 trees every year and train volunteers to help maintain them. Central to the town is the University of Michigan, which hosts a botanical garden and arboretum and is a leader in sustainability research. Two of Ann Arbor’s 159 parks rent canoes for paddling the Huron River as it flows through town.

ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA

More than three dozen craft breweries and brewpubs (the most per capita of any U.S. city) work hoppy magic in and around this North Carolina town. Many cluster in the South Slope, a former automotive zone where you can now walk between spots like Wicked Weed’s Funkatorium and Catawba Brewing Co., with a spacious deck boasting views of Mount Pisgah. Crafts of a less intoxicating sort also headline throughout the city, including at the historic Grovewood Village, with its artisan studios, art galleries, and sculpture garden.

BATON ROUGE, LOUISIANA

Black-and-red linoleum floors and vintage swivel chairs summon up the 1920s founding of the historically African-American Webb’s Barber Shop in Louisiana’s capital city. It’s one of an unusually high number of hair salons and grooming spots that let the good-looking times roll in this relaxed town sprawled along the Mississippi River. Louisiana State University students—a well-dressed lot known for donning frocks and cowboy boots or ironed polos for football games—often get shaves and haircuts at Mercer Supply Co.

HONOLULU, HAWAII

The Aloha State’s largest city also goes big when it comes to music venues, Instagrammable moments, and art galleries and art stores. An experience that encapsulates all of Honolulu’s chart-topping attributes? The artfully photogenic Surfjack Hotel and Swim Club recently launched a Sunday brunch that grooves with music sets curated by Oahu-based record label Aloha Got Soul.

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI

Depression-era painter Thomas Hart Benton called this midsize Missouri city home, perhaps igniting the town’s artistic fervor. Visit his home/studio (note the coffee cans full of paintbrushes) or view his romanticized images of local people and landscapes at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

LAKELAND, FLORIDA

Frank Lloyd Wright fans flock to this central Florida city to experience more than ten of his buildings gathered at Florida Southern College, the world’s largest single site of the architect’s work. But Lakeland makes it onto our list for its number of pet stores and dog-friendly restaurants per capita. Four-legged friends find a welcome on outdoor patios at places such as Red Door wine bar and Cozy Oaks Restaurant.

NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND

Antique carriages, fine horses, and dandily dressed carriage attendants in top hats bring a rakish, raffish charm to the Weekend of Coaching, a triennial festival to be held August 16 through 19, 2018. The coaches, some dating to the early 19th century, roll through the city and stop at mansion museums, including the Vanderbilts’ lavish, cliff-top The Breakers. An apropos spot to pamper yourself before the event: the spa at the 1875 Castle Hill Inn.

PORTLAND, MAINE

Red lobsters on the plate, painted fishing boats in the harbor, and salty lighthouses on rugged shores make Maine’s photogenic biggest city top the list in number of Instagram hashtags. Possible photo-shoot settings: nearby Fort Williams Park, home to the 80-foot-tall, circa-1791 Portland Head Light, especially as waves break on the rocks beneath; or the Old Port neighborhood, with its cobblestoned streets, 19th-century brick buildings, and picturesque wharves.

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY

The Hot Brown, an open-faced turkey and bacon sandwich napped in Mornay sauce, is as synonymous with Louisville as bluegrass and bourbon. (Bite into one where it was invented: the restored 1923 Brown Hotel.) But recently, country ham, aka “hillbilly prosciutto,” has been captivating Kentucky chefs. Sample a flight of the salty, sweet stuff at the Garage Bar. “Eat it with bourbon to cut through the marbled fat,” says local food writer Steve Coomes, who penned a book on country ham.

HAGERSTOWN, MARYLAND

Located along the C&O Canal National Historical Park trail, Hagerstown surprises bikers and hikers with its rich Civil War and African-American history. A newer pathway, the sculpture-dotted Hagerstown Cultural Trail, connects the city’s arts district to the Museum of Fine Arts at City Park. Also looking good: the locals, who patronize the city’s survey-topping number of barber shops and salons.

PENSACOLA, FLORIDA

Paw prints show up on greater Pensacola’s ethereal white-sand beaches thanks to two dedicated dog parks on the Gulf of Mexico. Pooches are also welcome on the redbrick sidewalks of Palafox Street/Place in the historic downtown, where 18th- to early 20th-century buildings embellished with ironwork balconies house galleries, shops, and restaurants, some with dog-friendly outdoor cafés. (Restaurants that allow pups, as well as a large number of pet shops and grooming spots, helped the city top this list.)

OMAHA, NEBRASKA

Indie rock bands thrive in this midwestern hub, due in part to homegrown label Saddle Creek, which reps native acts like Bright Eyes and the Faint. Both local and national musicians headline next door at the Slowdown, a concert hall just north of Old Market, Omaha’s cobblestoned historic district, now vibrant with restaurants, boutiques, and coffee shops.

COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA

With BBQ an essential menu item for South Carolinians, Columbia tops our list for meatiest city per capita in its population group. Locals get their grilled meats buffet-style at Little Pigs Barbecue or stuffed in delectable sandwiches at Southern Belly BBQ’s three locations. But don’t think that they neglect their grooming. Columbia also tops our list in its population group for its number of barber shops and salons.

HICKORY, NORTH CAROLINA

A thriving 20th-century manufacturing hub for furniture and textiles, Hickory now finds itself heading our list for its hipster-friendly offerings, from tattoo parlors to vintage clothing boutiques. Craft-beer enthusiasts gather at the popular annual Hickory Hops festival featuring more than 50 microbreweries and live music.

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The most exciting travel story in America right now? The resurgence of cities large and small.

At Nat Geo Travel, we’re passionate about tales of urban renewal, about communities that have collaborated to improve their Main Streets, about smart cities that have pursued development policies that produce happiness.

For this story, we partnered with Resonance Consultancy, a global destination branding advisor, to identify the top U.S. small cities based on unconventional metrics that we think lead to happiness: green spaces, galleries, coffee shops, breweries, music venues, Instagrammable moments, and more.

Next we sorted U.S. cities into three groups based on their population: 40K-100K, 100K-200K, and 200K-600K.

Resonance combined core statistics with social media data (from Yelp, Instagram, and other sources) on nightlife, culture, restaurants, and the like to determine the city leaders for each population group in categories from meatiest (lots of steakhouses and delis) to greenest (most parkland), based on per capita results.

Finally, Traveler editors added in trending cities—towns that didn’t make Resonance’s final cut this year but look as if they could in 2019. Keep your eye on them.

Six places on our list (Boulder, Colorado; Honolulu, Hawaii; Charlottesville, Virginia; Santa Cruz, California; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Portland, Maine) also appear on a National Geographic list of the happiest cities in America. Happy places for locals are also rewarding places for travelers.

We hope our list of 30 cities inspires enlightening discoveries.  

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