Discover more from Econ Soapbox
The Top 10 American Cities
[Insert clickbait subtitle about number 7 shocking you here]
The United States. 332 million people. 50 states. Countless cities, towns, and hamlets. So much to do and see. To help narrow it down, I give you my 10 ten list of American cities. And just who am I to be ranking American cities? Well, I’ve traveled to all 50 states and visited over 40 states at least twice. When I’m in a new city, even just briefly, I walk around a few neighborhoods and eat at local restaurants. I almost always visit at least one tourist attraction. Most importantly, I try to figure out the vibe of a place; what makes it tick.
I haven’t been everywhere: San Antonio, Cincinnati, and Detroit are still unvisited. I have not been to Phoenix, Dallas, or San Jose, but have no real desire to do so. In picking my top cities, I had a few requirements. First, any city had to be part of a metropolitan area with at least 400,000 people. Second, it needs to be a city I know fairly well. With one exception, I’ve been to each destination at least twice. Third, I’m only considering a city based on its urban area. So a city with a prime location near a lot of great things, such as Salt Lake City, didn’t make it because the urban area alone wouldn’t make my top ten.
Econ Soapbox is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Note that the ten are not ranked. Declaring one of these cities better or worse than another is impossible; they are just too different. Without further ado, in alphabetical order, my Top 10 American Cities:
Charleston, South Carolina.
The Holy City. Of all the towns in the Deep South, Charleston is my favorite. There’s a great food scene, with some of the best low-country restaurants to be found. Plenty of shops for everyone if that’s your thing. A visit to Ft. Sumter is a must for history buffs. More than anything, however, Charleston is a great city to walk. The city has the best residential architecture in the country. From the mansions along the Battery to the more modest houses that fill Old Charleston, it is a wonderful place to saunter, promenade, or amble. Take in the gorgeous porches, gardens, and homes of the Belle of the South.
The most American of all cities and my hometown. The food scene is second to none, with fare that ranges from the world’s greatest hot dog to the world’s greatest fine dining. A local liquor that makes one think they ingested gasoline and then go back from more. Amazing museums that have anything from priceless artwork to a German WWII submarine. And the neighborhoods. Dozens of them, each with their own architecture, people, and character. I think Irv Kupcinet said it best:
I’ve reported murders, scandals, marriages, premieres and national political conventions. I’ve been amused, intrigued, outraged, enthralled and exasperated by Chicago. And I’ve come to love this American giant, viewing it as the most misunderstood, most underrated city in the world. There is none other quite like my City of Big Shoulders.
Miami, along with New Orleans is a great party city. Some of the best clubs in America can be found downtown and in South Beach. At the same time, such a scene can be a detriment to the city reputationally. Miami does have a great club scene, but even without all that, it’s an amazing city. Coconut Grove is one of my favorite neighborhoods to walk around. Wynwood is quickly evolving from a warehouse district to a hipster’s paradise to a bougie enclave. Downtown Miami has a hustle and bustle that surprises the uninitiated. Culturally, Miami has become a giant, second only to New York City in terms of global importance. It is the cultural capital of Latin America and is constantly evolving with the people that move there.
New Orleans, Louisiana.
New Orleans is a unique American gem. Like Miami, the party scene on Bourbon Street gets all the attention. And the party scene is great. But like Miami, that distracts from the rest the Big Easy has to offer. Despite not being the traditional home of Cajun cuisine (that would be Acadia, a different region of Louisiana), Cajun joints now abound. The architecture is gorgeous. A walk in the Garden District will brighten anyone’s day. Time Out Magazine ranked Mid-city as one of the country’s top neighborhoods. History fans will enjoy the National World War II Museum. Night Owls will never be bored. Nola has it all.
The quirkiest city in America’s quirkiest region. Things have always been a bit strange in the Pacific Northwest. Portland has turned that strangeness up to 11, to the point that there’s even a TV show devoted to the absurdity of the place. Want to get married at a donut shop? Portland is your place. See a white guy in dreadlocks driving a BMW and wearing a hammer and sickle t-shirt? More likely in Portland than the rest of the country combined. The city is also home to the largest independent bookstore in the country, Powell’s. Portland can be exasperating at times, but could only exist in America. On top of all that, the beer scene is the best in the nation.
Providence, Rhode Island.
Providence is my favorite overlooked American city. Known to many as “that stop on the Amtrak between New York and Boston” the overlooked aspect of Providence has become one of its strongest assets. Of all the cities on this list, Providence feels the most local (although the next entry comes in a close second). Roger Williams Park is one of the best in the country. The downtown is bustling but compact. Brown University is gorgeous. Federal Hill has one of my favorite restaurant streets in America. So next time you’re in the North East, take a night or two and stop by the deserving but oft-forgotten state capital.
Unlike every other city on this list, I’ve only visited Richmond once. And I only stayed for two nights. Normally I’d want more time before listing a place on a top ten list, but Richmond is an easy call. There’s just so much packed into a small area. The Pipeline Walkway is one of the best urban walks, and most unique, in the world. Great restaurants serving cuisine from all over can be found in Carytown and The Fan. The Maymont Estate is great to spend an afternoon in. The residential architecture is second only to Charleston. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has the quality one would expect in a far larger city. So visit Richmond, it won’t waste your time.
San Diego, California.
San Diego is tough to qualify. It isn’t a secret destination, but also isn’t on most people’s A-list of the United States. It plays second fiddle to Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s a border city that feels wholly American. I love San Diego because of the variety. The Gaslamp Quarter is chock full of restaurants and bars. Little Italy is surprisingly robust. Old Town San Diego is great for history fans. Balboa Park is one of the best urban parks in the world, and that isn’t including the world famous (and very expensive) San Diego Zoo. Those sights alone, coupled with the year-round fantastic weather, make San Diego a great spot. But then there are the neighborhoods along the beach. Pacific Beach is a party, Mission Beach is subdued, and Ocean Beach is a wonderful seaside neighborhood. La Jolla (pronounced la hoi-ya) is fantastic. Every time I go to San Diego I realize there is still more to see, and I tell myself I’ll get there when I go back.
If Portland and San Diego had a child, then divorced and Portland got to keep the kid, it would probably look a lot like Seattle. Similar to Portland, there’s a hefty dose of Pacific Northwest oddness. Similar to San Diego, there are many different areas to discover, each with its own character and flair. On my most recent visit, I went to West Seattle for the first time, which might as well be a separate city. The University of Washington is one of the most beautiful in the world. Farmer’s markets abound. The beer is top-notch. Then there are amazing views of Mt. Rainier and the ocean from countless spots.
Long gone are the days when a trip to DC meant a bunch of government buildings, memorials, and museums, but nothing else. Today, Washington has great amenities across the board. Along with the famous restaurants that have catered to politicians for decades, new places far beyond the stodgy classic scene are springing up everywhere. Columbia Heights is, dare I say it, bougie. Adams Morgan has gone from hipster to wealthy I-used-to-be-a-hipster. The Southwest waterfront is finally being developed. Georgetown is still its own world. And of course, there are the amazing museums, memorials, and buildings. Washington has become a great place to visit for any reason.
So that’s it - my top ten list of American cities. Agree? Disagree? Let me know!