The 50 best cities in America

America was once the wild frontier – sweeping lands, big buffalo, and bigger skies – but today the cities rival the natural wonders.

From the dazzling lights of Las Vegas – the Strip is said to be one of the brightest spots on earth – to the toe-tapping, country-music bars of Nashville, we’ve tried and tested them all.

Here AnneLise Sorensen rounds up the 50 best towns and cities in America’s 50 states.

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1. Birmingham, Alabama

Birmingham’s tumultuous past may have earned it a place in the history books, but it’s the present that’s keeping it there. Industrial pioneers founded the city, 1960s Civil Rights pioneers launched the nation’s desegregation movement here, and today, cultural and culinary pioneers are leading the way, with innovative theater, museums, and restaurants – don’t miss the baked grits at Highlands Bar & Grill.

2. Sitka, Alaska

The best of Alaska converges on seaside Sitka. There’s nature: the mighty Mount Edgecombe, a collection of windswept islands, whale-watching, and kayaking. It has a fascinating history: a rich Russian legacy, presided over by a beautiful Russian Orthodox church. Plus there’s some serious small-town charm by way of an old-fashioned downtown peppered with cozy bars. Best of all, Sitka has smartly managed to stay off the cruise-ship trail. Here, locals still outnumber visitors.

3. Tucson, Arizona

Quintessential Southwest, Tucson is a vibrant blend of Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo cultures. Tucson has escaped the bulldozers of modernity (see Phoenix) by determinedly preserving its historic architecture, which is crowned by the glowingly white Mission San Xavier del Bac, the oldest European structure in Arizona. The University of Arizona lends a youthful air to the city, while the Mexican restaurants bring spice and flair (and very good margaritas).

4. Little Rock, Arkansas

Unfolding on the banks of the Arkansas River, this forward-thinking state capital offers an inviting foray into the New South. Delve into the life and times of Bill Clinton at the Clinton Presidential Center and Park, roam the premier Arkansas Art Center, feast on creative Southern cuisine, and then walk it off on the city’s riverfront trails.

5. San Francisco, California

Oscar Wilde once said, “It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world.” He was right. With iconic views around every bend – the Golden Gate Bridge arching over the sparkling San Francisco Bay – diverse neighborhoods, from Haight-Ashbury to Chinatown, and one of the finest food scenes in the world, this really is a perfect place to disappear to.

6. Denver, Colorado

Denver isn’t so much defined by its center, but by what looms all around it: the Rockies. The friendly, accessible Mile High City (its elevation is precisely one mile above sea level) is filled with cultural treasures, from the Art Museum to the Performing Arts Complex, but it’s the acres of stunning parkland in the Rocky Mountain foothills that sets it apart. Get your hiking boots out for this one.

7. New Haven, Connecticut

Connecticut‘s second city has a lot to offer visitors and is most famous as the home of Yale University. One lesser-known claim to fame, however, is that this city supposedly brought the world the humble hamburger. You can sample it at Louis’ Lunch – believed to the place where it was first sold – before exploring a few more of the city’s oddities. Head to the Cushing Brain Collection, home to over 400 preserved human brains, if you’ve got a strong stomach, or perhaps just stroll past the Skull and Bones Tomb, the headquarters of the infamous Yale society.

8. Dover, Delaware

Delaware is the country’s second-smallest state and its capital reflects that. With elegant government buildings, like the Old State House, dominating the skyline, Dover is little and likeable, and has a smattering of amiable restaurants and bars. Hear that distant roar? Somewhat incongruously, Dover is also home to the Dover International Speedway, which hosts the hugely popular NASCAR races.

9. St Petersburg, Florida

Beaches are everywhere in Florida. St Petersburg not only has plenty of those, but also one of the most unique museums in the state: the Salvador Dali Museum, which houses the largest collection of Dali’s works outside of Europe. Once satiated on art, go outside. Perched between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, St Petersburg offers everything from kayaking to sailing to horse riding on the sand.

10. Savannah, Georgia

This is the classic South: antebellum mansions, magnolia trees, trickling fountains – and mint juleps served in vine-draped gardens. But, Savannah has also comfortably eased into the present, with a host of art-driven institutions, from the lauded Savannah College of Art and Design to Art Rise Savannah, which supports local artists.

11. Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii

Maui is a land of natural wonders – deep-green valleys, sun-warmed beaches, bright-blue waters. But, it’s also a land of deep history, which is revealed in Lahaina, one of the oldest towns on the island. Once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Lahaina has beautifully preserved nineteenth century houses, a bustling harbor, colorful boutiques and craft shops, and the grand 1873 banyan tree – the oldest banyan in the state.

12. Idaho Falls, Idaho

Say “Idaho” and for many a sturdy starch leaps to mind: the potato. Yes, Idaho is famous for its spuds – and its backcountry wilderness – but it also has spirited urban pockets like Idaho Falls.

This well-curated city thrums with regional theaters, museums, home-cooking restaurants, and a lush greenbelt along the Snake River that winds through the center of town.

13. Chicago, Illinois

Chicago can claim plenty of superlatives: the world’s first skyscraper. The birth of Chicago-style jazz. The best pizza (or so say Chicagoans of their deep-dish masterpieces). Unquestionably the Midwest’s grandest city, Chicago is a bucket-list experience, with great art, architecture, comedy, cuisine, cocktails – and the natural beauty of Lake Michigan. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who launched his career in Chicago, summed it up: “Eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful great city left in the world.”

Pixabay / CC0

14. Bloomington, Indiana

This eminently liveable city reveals the best of the Midwest: friendly neighborhoods, tree-lined streets, beer bars, and a lively university – the University of Indiana, which is crowned by an I.M. Pei-designed art museum. Plus, Bloomington is a bicycle city, with bike trails everywhere – come by in April for the yearly Little 500 bicycle race, modeled on the famous Indianapolis 500.

15. Dubuque, Iowa

Iowa is sometimes dismissed as “flyover country” by East- and West-Coasters. But, those who bypass Iowa are missing out, especially when it comes to the state’s charismatic little hubs like Dubuque, Iowa’s oldest city. Stroll the Mississippi River waterfront, hop on a riverboat, tour the Dubuque Museum of Art, and ease into the night at a local winery.

16. Wichita, Kansas

One of the most famous quotes about Kansas is about not being in Kansas (“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”) Kansas has come to exemplify the rural heart of America, with its swaying cornfields that extend to the horizon. But Wichita, the state’s largest city, offers a dynamic departure from this, with plenty of urban flair, including top museums, like the Wichita Art Museum and the Exploration Place science and discovery center, and gourmet farm-to-fork restaurants.

17. Louisville, Kentucky

The Kentucky Derby doesn’t just overtake Louisville in the month of May – it has become the identity of this graceful city. It’s well worth experiencing first-hand (remember to bring a fabulous hat, or five). Otherwise, pay a visit to the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs, and then explore the rest of the city, including the breezy riverfront and the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, which traces the history of the famous baseball bats. Refuel along the way with chicken and waffles at Hammerheads.

18. New Orleans, Louisiana

Playwright Tennessee Williams once opined, “America only has three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” For Tennessee Williams, New Orleans was his muse – as it has been for many, from Louis Armstrong to Harry Connick Jr. New Orleans is a special city, from early morning beignets to mid-afternoon strolls through the dreamy Garden District to late-night jazz in the French Quarter. People rarely visit just once.

Pixabay / CC0 Pixabay / CC0 Pixabay / CC0

19. Portland, Maine

If New England had to pick one city as their showpiece, Portland would be the top choice.

This waterfront city drips with New England charm, with an Old Port crisscrossed with cobblestone streets, Victorian architecture, the stately Portland Headlight – the oldest lighthouse in Maine – and a booming bar and restaurant scene.

20. Baltimore, Maryland

It says a lot about Baltimore that film director John Waters is its most celebrated local – and that he set all his cult movies here. Waters is, after all, the master of transgressive art, who has always made movies his own way. Baltimore shares this trait. A once-gritty port town that has evolved with the times, Baltimore is now a dashing mix of old and new – red-brick row-houses and glossy office buildings, the National Aquarium and quirky cultural centers, plus faded bars and seafood palaces (try the Baltimore crabs).

21. Salem, Massachusetts

The macabre Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 live on in a wide variety of witchy sights (spooky walking tours, cemeteries, haunted houses), but there’s much more to this town. Enjoy the well-preserved historic waterfront, the 1668 House of Seven Gables mansion, and the Peabody Essex Museum, one of the country’s oldest continually operating museums, which is notable for its Asian art collection.

22. Detroit, Michigan

Motor City is back. For years, Detroit wasn’t just ignored by visitors – it was outright rejected. But, this buzzing metropolis has reclaimed its past and embraced the present, with music festivals, the premier Detroit Institute of Arts, Belle Isle island park (created by the same designer behind New York City’s Central Park), and, of course, plenty of shrines to the all-mighty automobile. Take the Ford Rouge Factory Tour or head to the North American International Auto Show (January), which Detroit has hosted for more than a hundred years.

23. St Paul, Minnesota

“Can’t repeat the past?” says F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. “Why of course you can!” Especially in St Paul, Minnesota, the birthplace of Fitzgerald, where you can walk in the footsteps of the literary great, from his boyhood home to bars where he knocked back whisky.

Unfolding on the banks of the Mississippi River, St Paul flourishes with outdoor and indoor activities, from riverfront trails to top museums and theaters to pubs that pour homemade brews.

24. Oxford, Mississippi

What’s in a name? In this case, it won the city a university. Oxford was named after Oxford in England, in the hopes that this would entice a university to open here. And, it worked: in 1948, the University of Mississippi was founded in Oxford, and since then, the city has emerged as a dynamic hub of learning, live music, and lauded restaurants. Oxford is also a great jumping-off point to exploring the rest of the state, including the mighty Mississippi River, which winds along the western border.

25. Kansas City, Missouri

Barbecue, beer, and bebop: this is Kansas City. Feast on some of the best ‘cue in the nation, take in the spray of a fountain (the city is famously said to have more fountains than Rome), and spend the evenings enjoying jazz music with a few brews.

26. Missoula, Montana

Take all the dusty frontier and cowboy stereotypes about the Big Sky state and toss them aside. The spirited college town of Missoula rivals the country’s arty hubs, thanks to the yearly influx of University of Montana students, who throng the downtown pubs and restaurants – and the grand outdoors that forms Missoula’s backyard.

27. Omaha, Nebraska

The cornhusker state also has a cosmopolitan side – in Omaha. While much of Nebraska is wide-open plains and farmland – punctuated by barns and silos – the state’s largest city offers an urban counterpoint. Tour the Durham Museum, set in the Art Deco Union Station, as well as the famous zoo, followed by a rollicking evening of live country and folk music.

28. Las Vegas, Nevada

When you think of hedonistic pleasures, one city struts to mind: Las Vegas. After all, their motto is: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Rising over the Nevada desert, this shrine to indulgence is filled with dazzling resorts and casinos, ultra-luxury hotels, all-you-can-eat (and eat and eat) buffets, and high-kicking shows. Prepare to go off budget, off diet, and off script – and to enjoy every minute of it.

29. Portsmouth, New Hampshire

A New Hampshire harbor town with style, inviting Portsmouth – the third-oldest city in the country – is both folksy and fashionable. In one day, you can feast on lobster rolls at a picnic table overlooking the Piscataqua River; explore the open-air Strawberry Banke museum; browse a bookstore; and then top off the night in a sexy cocktail bar, to the tunes of live jazz.

30. Cape May, New Jersey

Yes, the Jersey Shore has a reputation of big hair, tiny bathing suits and spray tans. However, Cape May is anything but.

This Victorian seaside oasis, founded in 1620, has wide, sun-soaked beaches, friendly seafood shacks and cosy bars where you can sip a cocktail and watch the sun sink into the ocean.

31. Santa Fe, New Mexico

Wander amid the deep-red landscapes of Santa Fe, and you’ll understand why this earthy city inspired Georgia O’Keeffe to paint her greatest works. Sitting at an elevation of 1233m, the highest state capital in the country, it reveals a stunning architectural timeline of US history, from Native American adobe dwellings to Spanish Colonial to Greek Revival. It also reveals an artistic timeline, with a prolific arts and crafts scene that plays out in galleries and museums.

32. Hudson, New York

Unquestionably, any visit to this state warrants a stop in New York City. But when you’re ready to escape the high-rise, heading to Hudson is the way to go. Just two hours north of New York City, Hudson is small-town living with big-city flair: tiny cafés that pour single-origin coffee, impeccable boutiques, farmers markets with bins of just-picked vegetables that still have dirt clumps clinging to them. Plus, there’s the surrounding Hudson Valley, where you can hike and bike while gulping in bracing, smog-free air.

33. Asheville, North Carolina

Bring your fedora and head to Asheville – North Carolina’s hipster hub. There’s a thriving live-music scene, microbreweries galore, home-grown restaurants where side-burned chefs turn out organic Southern feasts, and a museum dedicated to the famed native novelist Thomas Wolfe. Bring the hiking boots, too, because Asheville sits in the shadow of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains where trails fan out into the surrounding wilderness.

34. Grand Forks, North Dakota

Few states capture the vastness of the United States like North Dakota, which nudges up against Canada to the north. Nature reigns supreme, from the windswept plains and prairies to the otherworldly Badlands. Amid all this are energetic cultural hubs, like Grand Forks, which is home to the University of North Dakota and the North Dakota Museum of Art, as well as the Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra.

35. Cincinnati, Ohio

This Southern-tinged Midwestern City – Kentucky’s horse-grazing fields are just across the Ohio River – offers an enticing mix of architecture, art, and the outdoors. Explore the city’s elegant Roebling Suspension Bridge (a precursor to Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge), the famous Cincinnati Zoo (the second-oldest zoo in the US), and a superb array of museums, from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center to the Cincinnati Art Museum.

36. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Once a dusty cowboy town, Oklahoma City has become the state’s powerhouse, with a booming downtown district filled with sleek hotels, gourmet restaurants and the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, which is crowned by Dale Chihuly’s glass art. But the city also celebrates its frontier past, with the fascinating National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, showcasing one of the finest collections of Western art in the USA.

37. Ashland, Oregon

Uniquely, this small, hilly town in Southern Oregon has become synonymous with a famous man of letters: Shakespeare. In 1935, Ashland founded the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is now an annual four-month long celebration of the bard across three different theaters. By day, explore art galleries, local vineyards, and the hundred-acre Lithia Park, and by night, tune into classical musical concerts and live jazz, followed by a tipple at a low-lit cocktail bar.

38. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The city known as the birth of the nation has also birthed a dynamic contemporary cultural arts scene. Visit iconic historical sites like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, and then roam top-notch art galleries and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, sink your teeth into a Philly cheesesteak, and go bar-hopping in Fishtown.

39. Providence, Rhode Island

This lively state capital is the embodiment of New England: leafy parks that change colors by the season, rustic restaurants, and a fertile arts scene, from galleries to repertory theaters. All of this is presided over by the esteemed Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, which inject Providence with a youthful, progressive energy.

40. Greenville, South Carolina

Tradition meets trendy in this sophisticated Southern city that’s experiencing a rebirth. Greenville, South Carolina has a burgeoning New South cuisine scene, eye-catching sculptures along Main Street, a flourishing city park with a tumbling waterfall, and the Peace Center for the Performing Arts, which was built on the site of a historic plant that once produced wagons for the Confederate Army.

41. Sioux Falls, South Dakota

The Big Sioux River runs through the center of this South Dakota city, which is filled with local culture, from art galleries featuring Native American Art to wine bars to SculptureWalk, an exhibit of original outdoor sculptures that changes yearly. Plus, of course, there’s the extremely pleasant Falls Park, where the water tumbles over rocks and small drops to give the city its name.

42. Nashville, Tennessee

“Country music has all the stories,” once said the blues singer Etta James. The same can be said about Nashville: this is a city rich in country music tales, from the rise of Elvis and Dolly Parton to the stream of hopefuls who perform in the city’s many honky-tonk bars. Don’t miss a show at the Grand Ole Opry, followed by the Nashville specialty of hot chicken, at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack.

By Ntcrwlr on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) By banlon1964 on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) By Ntcrwlr on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

43. Austin, Texas

You’ll see it on t-shirts, posters, and bumper stickers: Keep Austin Weird. The good news? The city has managed to do so. Quirky, playful, and rebellious, Austin is a music pioneer – and host of the famous SXSW festival. It abounds with artistic and culinary indulgences, including superb barbecue, funky coffeehouses, and innovative galleries.

44. Moab, Utah

Few places make you feel more like a mortal than standing in the middle of Utah’s vast desert, looking up at red-rock arches that glow against the bright-blue sky.

The lively city of Moab is the perfect base for exploring nearby Arches National Park, along with Canyonlands National Park and the mighty Colorado River.

45. Burlington, Vermont

Two names: Ben and Jerry. The famous Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream, launched by two hippies in a renovated gas station in Burlington, became the worldwide symbol of Vermont – natural, socially minded, countercultural. Burlington exhibits the best of the state: organic food, craft beers, dog-friendly cafés, whimsical art galleries, and ample outdoor adventures around Lake Champlain.

46. Richmond, Virginia

“Give me liberty or give me death!” It was in Richmond that politician and Founding Father Patrick Henry uttered those words, which led to the American Revolutionary War. Virginia’s capital city is filled with historical icons – check out the famous statues of Civil War icons on Monument Avenue – but it also celebrates trendy pleasures, from gourmet brunches to live indie music, as well as outdoor pursuits, including rafting on the James River, which meanders through the city.

47. Seattle, Washington

For many, Seattle isn’t just the best city in Washington – but in the country. Yes, it launched tech behemoths Microsoft and Amazon – and gave the world Starbucks – but at heart, it’s a plaid-wearing, grunge-loving artist hub surrounded by the great outdoors. Plus, it has one of the world’s finest food markets – Pike Place market.

48. Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

It might not be a city, but cobblestone Harpers Ferry has enough charm to make it worth the trip. History and nature come together here, as the town sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Roam the old town, filled with over a hundred historic buildings, from Victorian homes to churches, and then canoe and kayak the rivers.

49. Madison, Wisconsin

There’s a lot more to Wisconsin than cheese and football (though the enthusiastic Green Bay Packers’ cheesehead fans – yes, they wear cheese-shaped hats – might say otherwise). There are also gleaming lakes and rolling parkland, and the capital Madison, which is an inviting microcosm of the state, with premier art museums and innovative architecture by native son Frank Lloyd Wright. You can take bicycle brewery tours or explore the city through its culinary offerings.

50. Jackson, Wyoming

While not strictly a city, the mountain resort of Jackson is a Wyoming highlight and can be summed up with this: wooden sidewalks. These rustic walkways embody the down-to-earth nature of this town, which is presided over by the Rocky Mountains. Yes, Jackson has its luxurious side, with upscale hotels, sumptuous spas, and the finest ski runs in the country, but at heart, it’s an earthy, cowboy town, where you end the day in a quiet bar, with a pint of beer, watching the sun set over the peaks.

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