American Cities on the Rise

We take measure of America’s best small cities and discover the superlatives of 29 surprising destinations.

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The renaissance city of Pittsburgh (seen here from the Renaissance Hotel) has spirited neighbourhoods, green buildings, and a buzzing craft brew scene. Photo by: John M. Barbiaux

What’s the most exciting travel story in America? The resurgence of cities large and small. It’s a subject we’ve tracked closely, celebrating the successes of cities that showcase the American knack for reinvention, from Asheville, North Carolina, and Madison, Wisconsin, to Santa Cruz, California. At Traveler 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.

In this story we report on eminently visitable smaller cities that embody a thematic superlative measured by our data-loving friends at Resonance Consultancy (see “Crunching the Numbers,” right). Our index is 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 applied its own algorithms to surface the cities that rate highest. Finally, Traveler editors added a “trending” city—towns that didn’t make Resonance’s final cut this year but look as if they could in 2019. Keep your eye on them.

The achievements of the small cities we highlight might reflect the influence of demographic measurements that are increasingly guiding urban development policies. It came as no surprise to us that six places on our list (Boulder, Colorado; Honolulu, Hawaii; Charlottesville, Virginia; Santa Cruz; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Portland, Maine) also appear on a National Geographic list of the 25 happiest cities in America. That study, guided by the bestselling Blue Zones author Dan Buettner and Gallup-Sharecare’s social scientists, established 15 metrics that signal well-being (vacation days, for example) and drew on nearly 2,50,000 interviews in 190 metropolitan areas to determine cities where locals are measurably happy. “Happiness is not a coincidence but instead is the result of the conscious effort of enlightened leaders to make decisions that improve the quality of life for locals,” Buettner told us. “We have identified common indicators that have produced measurable happiness in cities. So we have a better idea of what policies are more likely to produce happiness, and these can serve as a guiding light to other communities that are seeking to improve quality of life.”

Happy places for locals also reward travellers. We hope our list inspires enlightening discoveries. —George Stone, Editor-in-Chief, National Geographic Traveler (U.S.)


Crunching the Numbers

What if a synthesis of social media reviews and statistics could help you decide which smaller U.S. city to visit? That’s the idea behind Resonance Consultancy’s new Small Cities Index, a survey created just for Traveler. A global adviser in tourism and economic development, Resonance combined core statistics with social media data on nightlife, culture, restaurants, and the like to come up with categorical rankings of metro areas with populations of no more than a million people. By mining Yelp, Instagram, and other sources, Resonance determined leaders in categories from meatiest (lots of steakhouses and delis) to greenest (most parkland), based on per capita results. “It’s a holistic picture of cities, based on what people say in reviews,” says Resonance CEO Chris Fair. “It’s consumer generated but objective.” On the following pages, “In Focus” looks closely at one of the top-rated cities identified by Resonance; “Trending” spotlights our editors’ pick for a city on the rise.


Most Hipster Friendly

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Despite hipster trappings (tattoo parlours, vintage stores), 300-years-young New Orleans, like these French Quarter performers, sings its own tune. Photo by: Tony Mendoza

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Spokane, Washington A high count of record stores, tattoo parlours, vintage clothing boutiques, and coffee shops per capita boosts Washington State’s second largest city to the top of our hipster-friendly list 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.


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. One-time 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 centres on a busy lobby with a curated musical stage that hosts local acts. There’s sometimes a wait to get into Alto, the hotel’s happening rooftop bar, so consider heading to the nearby CellarDoor and its courtyard for drinks and small bites.


Musically Grooviest

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Santa Cruz, California, soars not just on its famed boardwalk but also on its musical abundance. Photo by: Greg Raiten

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Santa Cruz, Calif. 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.

Located on California’s windblown Central Coast south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz also lures surfers with easy-riding waves, and nostalgia buffs and families with its retro boardwalk, which dates to 1907. The latter presents modern amusements as well as the Giant Dipper, a 1924 wooden roller coaster, and the 1911 Looff Carousel, where painted horses bob to antique band-organ tunes.


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.


Most Instagrammed

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Portland, Maine Red lobsters on the plate, painted fishing boats in the harbour, and salty lighthouses on rugged shores make Maine’s photogenic biggest city top the list in number of Instagram hashtags. “We have all four seasons here, which means the environments to shoot are constantly changing,” says local photographer Corey Templeton. “Plus the ocean reflects light in such a pretty way.” Possible photo-shoot settings: nearby Fort Williams Park, home to the 80-foot-tall, circa-1791 Portland Head Light (#oldestinthestate), especially as waves break on the rocks beneath; or the Old Port neighbourhood, with its cobblestoned streets, 19th-century brick buildings, and picturesque wharves.

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. Visitors can sidle up to Franklin D. Roosevelt at a podium or high-five Chester Arthur or—when the statue arrives this spring—hug a grinning Barack Obama. Topping a hill nearby, the Depression-era Dinosaur Park lures families with its whimsical (if biologically inaccurate) concrete models of T. rex and other dinos, plus views of the Black Hills and Badlands beyond.


Most Artsy

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Charleston, South Carolina
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 specialises in works by southern artists such as West Fraser, known for his muted paintings of nearby Low Country. Performing arts shine at the three-year-old Gaillard Center, which hosts concerts and dance shows and is one of the venues for the celebrated Spoleto Festival, taking place from 25 May to
10 June this year.

Kansas City, Missouri
Depression-era painter Thomas Hart Benton called this midsize city home, perhaps igniting the town’s artistic fervour. Visit his home/studio or view his romanticised images of local people and landscapes at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.



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Reno loves its ribs, particularly during the annual Nugget Rib Cook-Off competition. Photo by: Shea Evans

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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.


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.


Best Groomed

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Baton Rouge, Louisiana Black-and-red linoleum floors and vintage swivel chairs summon 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. The loft-like salon and barbershop is at 1010 Nic, a new complex of old warehouses with indie retailers between LSU and downtown.


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 16 through 19 August, 2018. The coaches, some dating to the early 19th century 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.


Most Caffeinated

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Boulder, Colorado There seem to be as many coffee shops as cyclists in this mountain city (home to the University of Colorado Boulder), so it’s no surprise that several combo java joint/bike shops have opened recently. On downtown’s main Pearl Street drag, there’s At Full Cycle, where you can buy wheels and gear or have a latte or local beer. Cycling clubs (usually still in their workout wear) crowd the minimalist café/bike shop Rapha for espresso, pre-ride waffles, and post-ride pastries.

Boulder also is home to herbal speciality tea business Celestial Seasonings. Daily free tours of the working factory include unlimited samples, a look at how tea is bagged, and stops at the aromatic mint room.


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.


Most Dog Friendly

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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 red-brick 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.) Plus, each Saturday morning, the Palafox Market features dozens of vendors offering local produce and crafts.


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 harbour-front restaurants allow dogs on their patios, including the Middleton Tavern, where George Washington and other Founding Fathers once slurped oysters.



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In Asheville, aka Beer City, U.S.A., the Social Lounge offers a rotating selection of eight local draught. Photo by: C2 Photography

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Asheville, North Carolina More than three dozen 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 (sour ale specialists) and Catawba Brewing Co., with a spacious deck boasting views of Mount Pisgah. Beer tours also soak up the scene. BREW-ed walks led by beer sommeliers called Cicerones include tastings, local history, and technical aspects of suds crafting. The goofy-looking Amazing Pubcycle, a pedal-powered trolley, lets groups transport themselves between breweries. Plus, local draughts show up in lots of cuisine: Highland Brewing’s Black Mocha Stout–flavoured scoops at Ultimate Ice Cream and sugary beer glazes at Vortex Doughnuts.


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.



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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 snowplough 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. Here, prairie grasslands and lilacs fill 1,200 acres, and free guided Sunday walks take in features like “effigy mounds,” ancient earthworks built around a thousand years ago. The new over 300-kilometre Frank Lloyd Wright driving trail through southern Wisconsin pinpoints multiple buildings designed by the Wisconsin-born architect, including the cabin-like First Unitarian Society and the lakeside Monona Terrace in Madison.


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. Neighbours 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.




  • Jennifer Barger is a senior editor at National Geographic Travel. Follow her on Instagram @dcjnell.


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