New York has been the star of the Best Cities show for the past four years, but COVID-19 made 2020 into a life and death drama for the city that called every assumption into question and turned the data on its head. In America’s top-ranked city for culture, the MOMA is helping parents teach art from home, the Metropolitan Opera is streaming performances, and Broadway, where the show must famously go on, is shuttered, a tragedy. A year ago, New York was reinventing shopping, with the mall of the future at Hudson Yards and Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus vying for supremacy in the chic city. This year, in the #1 shopping city in America, there is no breakfast at Tiffany’s. New York, of course, ranks first for Fortune 500 companies but now meetings are virtual and a generation of entrepreneurs is thinking hard about its life choices. In the city that never sleeps, #1 for Nightlife, night owls order delivery and dream fitfully at home. Restaurants, #2 in the country, almost instantly became take-out and delivery operations, accelerating a trend from dining out to eating in. Nobody knows when any of this ends, but New York knows a thing or two about coming back from terrible brinks. 9/11 is more than a vague memory. SARS came and went. However the world emerges, evolves or pivots out of our collective force majeure, it will happen here first. New York is, after all, #1.
Los Angeles has always had “star” power, but when Michelin announced in June 2019 that 24 Greater Los Angeles area restaurants had been awarded with its most prestigious accolade in its inaugural Michelin Guide California selection, it suddenly meant more than just A-listers and cinema cachet. Indeed, of the seven new two-star distinctions in the Guide, six are in L.A., further cementing its accolades as “the Most Exciting Food City in America.” Of course all that means little when sheltering in place has shuttered hundreds of the city’s exciting dining spots. The COVID-19 outbreak has launched L.A.—and Mayor Eric Garcetti—into the spotlight. The city was the first metropolis in the country to demand almost full closure, “and the biggest city to go to full closure of all nonessential businesses,” the mayor pointed out recently. Combine that foresight with California’s fast action on lockdowns, and L.A. is positioned to come back brighter. Its cultural and culinary leaders—so willing to step up and declare the city open for business after a series of natural disasters, helping the city rank #2 in our Promotion category—will be called upon again soon. They’ll do their best to keep their city’s #2 ranking in the subcategory of Facebook Check-ins and #3 for Instagram Hashtags and Google Trends. Anything to get the City of Angels off the ground.
San Francisco has embraced seekers since the Gold Rush days, when, seemingly overnight, people came from Asia and Europe, from across the continent and from the other side of the world for their shot at the California Dream. Along the way, these immigrants have sowed the seeds for the city’s open-minded attitude toward, well, everything. The result is a place that doesn’t just welcome differences, but actually encourages and celebrates them. No wonder it ranks #2 nationally in our People category, including #3 for post-secondary educated residents and #4 for Foreign Born residents. The promise of high salaries means a torrent of global workers fuel the city’s ambition and ideas, ranking it #7 in the nation in our Prosperity category, including #2 for Household Income and #4 for Fortune 500 Companies. Given its well-documented attempt at inclusivity and taking care of its own—from COVID-19 patients to the swelling homeless population. “We’re the city of St. Francis, and if we don’t lead on this, then shame on us,” said Joe D’Alessandro, CEO of San Francisco Travel. “As a DMO we’re taking a leading role on this… looking for small fixes until we can figure it out federally.” With that kind of local support, the city is charging into the current crisis well equipped.
Few American cities fell harder in visitor numbers in recent months than Chicago. Whether for business or pleasure, the city had been attracting tourism at record-breaking levels year after year. Indeed, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel took the city’s top job in 2011, an estimated 39 million people a year visited Chicago. By the time he wrapped up his final term in 2019, that number had ballooned to nearly 58 million annual visitors—an impressive tourism feat and perhaps the biggest success story of Emanuel’s mayoral tenure. In the last few years, the Windy City pursued and acquired some big-ticket draws, including the NFL Draft, the James Beard Foundation Awards and the Laver Cup. It also bolstered tourist-friendly attractions like the Riverwalk and events that showcase Chicago’s craft beer scene. Its #3 ranking in our Programming category—including #2 in the subcategories of Culture and Nightlife, behind only NYC—speaks to the plentiful buzz that Chicago was perfecting before everything ground to a halt. In the not-too-distant future, the Obama Presidential Center—to be set in Jackson Park—will become a marquee attraction on Chicago’s South Side. “I think President Obama’s library can do for tourism what McCormick Place has done for business travel in the city,” Emanuel noted during his time as mayor. The city’s #5 ranking for Museums among the country’s large cities will surely improve as a result.
The ubiquity of the U.S. capital in dramas on screens small and large (to say nothing of the real-life stuff) has escalated its resonance in the zeitgeist and helped propel it to the cusp of the Top 5 large cities in the nation. The winning of Amazon’s coveted HQ2 in nearby Arlington, Virginia, dominated local chatter last year—the 25,000 jobs created will be located in what Amazon calls National Landing, a newly minted place brand for the neighborhood near Reagan National Airport known as Crystal City. The jobs will improve D.C.’s already impressive #3 ranking in our Prosperity category, powered by its #3 spot for Household Income in the country and #6 for Fortune 500 Companies. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, 2020 was going to be one of the busiest ever for D.C. development, with Capitol Hill’s the Roost, a 12,500-square-foot community-based food hall, kicking things off. West Half, near The Yards Park, is also planned to open later this year and will feature views of Major League Baseball’s Nationals Park and includes a brewery, cafés and local grocery store. And Ward 7, two blocks away from the Minnesota Avenue metro station, will be home to Market 7, powered by a variety of black-owned businesses including a grocer and retail installations by local makers. The jewel in the city’s culinary crown will be the $250-million River Point, two blocks from Audi Field, between Capitol Riverfront and the Wharf, with piers, waterfront activity and new restaurants that include a veggie-friendly eatery by James Beard–winning chef Spike Gjerde.
You could say that San Diego is where California began. It was here that Spanish settlers established the region’s very first mission in 1769—251 years ago, on a hillside overlooking what is now known as Old Town San Diego. Two and a half centuries later, this city of 1.4 million (with an MSA population approaching 3.5 million) is one of the fastest-growing in the U.S. Its #2 ranking in our deep Place category—with Top ten finishes for Safety (#10) and Parks & Outdoors (#3). And, of course, there’s its weather. San Diego is as naturally endowed as any place has a right to be—its sublime 263 full and partly sunny days annually help place it at #5 in the nation, while the 23 beaches—70 miles of them—within the city limits make it synonymous with SoCal surf culture. After a festive 2019 celebrating its 250th, the city is now pausing somewhat to reap the fruits of a torrid few years of development. Of course, with the COVID-19 outbreak and California’s stringent shelter-in-place orders, San Diegans don’t really have a choice. When they do get back out of the house and into their beloved city, they’ll beeline for the famous eponymous zoo—which is one year closer to the opening of its $69-million children’s zoo, to be named after Denny Sanford, a San Diego philanthropist who donated $30 million to this endeavor, the largest single gift the San Diego Zoo has ever received.
The story of Las Vegas blossoming into a “real city” has usually been told of late with breathless praise for its economic success. Tourism—the number one economic driver for Southern Nevada—has long paid for Las Vegas’ roads, parks, school construction and teachers’ salaries. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), more than 41% of Southern Nevadans are employed directly or indirectly because of tourism. But this single reliance on the visitor economy also means that the COVID-19 outbreak has decimated Las Vegas like few other American cities. When Governor Steve Sisolak took the unprecedented step of ordering every casino and gaming operation—the lifeblood of the state’s economy—to shut down by midnight, March 17, citizens were thrust into an unimaginable financial crisis. Overnight, hundreds of thousands were furloughed or lost their jobs outright. Perhaps the city’s pursuit of transforming into a hometown will accelerate its rebound as the lockdown begins to lift. If there is a silver lining for locals, it’s that they’ll have the nation’s #4-ranked Programming, including #3 in Culture, #4 in Nightlife and #8 in Restaurants, all to themselves for a few months, all while helping fellow citizens put in the reps to once again host the world.
It’s fascinating what a well-educated, well-paid and diverse population can do for a city’s rankings. In the case of San Jose, the economic, cultural and political capital of Silicon Valley, it’s everything, and it’s given the city its highest-ever finish in our ranking. The city boasts the highest household income in the country. All that capital lures the best talent on the planet, meaning San Jose also tops our People category, with the smartest residents in the nation and the second-most diverse. The bounty of universities in the area is a performance driver all its own, creating symbiotic integrations with the tech companies in the city that have access to funding and innovation like few others. Given the optimal conditions of a lauded, coveted school and the on-ramp it provides to jobs in the same city, San Jose will continue to stock its talent pipeline for years to come. The region, home to Google, Facebook, Cisco Systems, eBay and PayPal, is #6 for Fortune 500 HQs eager for graduates. There are a massive number of corporate offices in the city—with rumored plans for a new Google campus that could house up to 25,000 employees—but given the plentiful prosperity, San Jose is an incredibly livable and worthwhile destination. As California’s oldest civilian Spanish settlement, the city has many museums spanning its fascinating history.
Miami’s natural attributes—turquoise Biscayne Bay lapping gleaming sand while sun-kissed bodies frolic everywhere—have always captured the world’s imagination and crystallized the city’s hedonistic brand. But it’s the city’s openness to immigrants (and, more recently, the LGBTQ community) that ranks it #4 in the country in our People category, including being the city with the most foreign-born residents. Indeed, the city boasts more than 100 languages spoken at home, according to the latest census. Miami’s historic embrace of a crossroads of the Americas has also meant a business advantage few other cities claim. It’s home to one of the largest concentrations of international banks in the U.S., as well as the largest hub—outside of Mexico City, New York and L.A.—of Spanish-language media. Set at the crossroads of Latin America both in geography and in culture, Miami intends to promote its connectivity and globalism, and the region’s selection as a host city candidate for the 2026 World Cup will go a long way in showcasing these qualities. The city is also continuing its aggressive pursuit of events and conferences, and last year it approved the hotel design for the new Miami Beach Convention Center—a 185-foot, 17-story structure to be completed by 2022.
A hub of higher education and home to the fourth-best-educated workforce in the nation, Beantown produces a steady stream of new talent to help attract start-ups and established companies alike. Future talent gravitates to Harvard, of course—the country’s top school (and a big reason why the city is #1 in our University subcategory and scored Top 5 in our Product category, which measures expensive, hard-to-build infrastructure like Airport Connectivity and Convention Centers)—as well as to Boston’s density of other world-class universities and colleges. The city is bursting with lecture halls, labs and classrooms of the more than 75 institutions of higher learning, and is energized by the estimated 200,000 post-secondary students creating stories, ideas, solutions and technologies that will help drive the economy and incubate innovation districts nationally and globally in the coming decades. New students flock here, to arguably the planet’s largest university town, by the tens of thousands every year and become smitten with the crooked narrow streets and storied pubs, blended with American optimism and East Coast connectivity. This is the birthplace of America, after all. And Facebook. No wonder Boston ranks #7 in our People category, including #4 for the percentage of the population with postsecondary education.
International immigration in the past decade has contributed to explosive population growth and has made Houston one of the most ethnically diverse big cities in America, with more than 145 different languages spoken at home, according to the latest census—about even with New York. No wonder its restaurants are ranked #4 in the nation, trailing just the big three of L.A, NYC and Chicago. The fourth-largest city in the U.S. is also home to the fourth-largest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the country. Despite this, the city ranks a middling #47 for Prosperity, including #74 in our Employment ranking and #99 for Income Equality. The recent development of the Houston Spaceport, a hub for innovation, education and commercial spaceflight, is the future of the region’s space industry—and brings us all a step closer to space tourism. For now, Houston’s 22.3 million annual visitors (2018)—of which 3.28 million were international travelers—arrive and depart by more conventional means—at least they did before the city was devastated by the pandemic. The city ranks #7 for Airport Connectivity.
Atlanta has always been a crossroads—open to new ideas, and to the new arrivals who came to this lush, hot, rolling land when the city rose as a railroad terminus. Today, it’s still a transportation hub, with Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport one of the busiest airports in the world, with 80% of the U.S. population residing within a two-hour flight. It’s why the city ranks #4 for Airport Connectivity among all U.S. cities, as well as #4 for its Convention Center, resulting in an overall #6 ranking in our Product category. Atlanta, like most optimized hubs, also boasts efficient, inexpensive, direct public transit links to the city from its airport. It’s also a long-time business titan and ranks #9 in the nation for most Fortune 500 companies based in town.
A thriving desert metropolis, Phoenix offers some of the best Mexican food this side of the border, a number of fine museums, a vibrant artist community and 300 days of sunshine. Start your visit with a stroll through Roosevelt Row Arts District, or RoRo, as locals have taken to calling it. Art galleries, studios, restaurants and bars sit side by side in this walkable creative district in the downtown core—helping the city to a #12 ranking in the country in our Sights & Landmarks category. Don’t miss the Desert Botanical Garden, which, with more than 50,000 plants, has one of the world’s largest collections of desert flora. Want to see some cacti and succulents in their natural element? Take a close-up look at Camelback Mountain. Summit trails are not for the faint of heart, especially in 100-degree heat, but the base of the mountain offers easier and equally beautiful trails for beginners. Phoenix ranks #13 in the nation for its Parks & Outdoors. If you’re looking for a respite from the heat, visit the Phoenix Art Museum, where Carlos Amorales’ Black Cloud, a site-specific installation consisting of 25,000 individual, life-sized black paper moths and butterflies, weaves its way in a swarm up the walls and ceilings of a gallery space.
It’s not only city branding that’s big in Dallas, which is home to more than 10,000 corporate headquarters—the largest corporate head office concentration in the U.S. and ranked third nationally in our Fortune 500 Companies subcategory. Of course, a city with lots of corporate headquarters is a city that’s easy to get to; Dallas ranks first in the nation for Connectivity, a measure of direct flight access into a city’s principal airport. But the city isn’t just big money; it’s big on fun and culture, too. Dallas is also home to America’s sixth-largest LGBTQ+ community, with bars and restaurants concentrated in Oak Lawn, and to the Dallas Arts District, the largest contiguous urban arts district in the nation. On 20 square blocks of mixed-use space, museums like the Dallas Museum of Art, the Crow Museum of Asian Art and the renowned Nasher Sculpture Center—as well as theaters, symphony and opera venues and restaurants and bars—all contribute to a #20 ranking in Culture.
Seattle’s self-reliance and dedication to taking care of its own has fostered over 150 years of city-building on the far-flung northwest coast of the U.S., setting the stage for its current “it” status. In many ways, Sea Town reverse-engineered its success. With a focus on education and an optimized workforce, the very environment that launched and held on to Boeing (still the biggest local employer despite the relocation of its headquarters to Chicago) as well as Microsoft and Weyerhaeuser has also attracted more recent captains of industry, like Amazon, Costco and Starbucks. Keeping the talent pipeline stocked has always been Seattle’s secret—and it has paid off. Today, it ranks #11 in the nation for educated citizenry and #6 in our vital Household Income subcategory. The city’s boom has slowed significantly, with rising COVID-19 cases—despite being 22nd-lowest in the nation as of early July—and its highest-ever unemployment rate (ranked #86 nationally as of May 2020). At the same time, residents, workers and businesses have been hobbled by the closure of the West Seattle Bridge, the city’s busiest.
Since its Wild West beginnings, Denver has attracted people from a variety of cultures who’ve created a rich tapestry and a diverse cultural heritage. These days, an increasing number of companies are locating in Downtown Denver, which points to its reputation as one of the best places in the country to start and grow a business. The city ranks an impressive #11 nationally for Prosperity, including #30 for Employment as of May 2020 and #28 for tackling income inequality. But it’s not just an abundance of jobs and a lower cost of living that’s attracting a highly educated and in-demand workforce to the city. Blessed with 300 days of sunshine a year and surrounded by mountains, hiking paths and numerous indoor/outdoor spaces, the city is in the vanguard of the growing trend toward office wellness. Lest we forget, cannabis is legal in the Mile High City and the entire state of Colorado.
The rebellious Texas city—forged with the Longhorn State’s can-do persistence cut with a university town’s political activism and social diversity—has long attracted the misfits that didn’t quite fit into the south’s expectations. the city ranks Top 10 in our People category, including #8 for Educational Attainment. That foundation of thinking differently drew dreamers for decades, manifesting in one of the nation’s top music scenes. The city’s marketing organization, Visit Austin, trademarked the city as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” On any given night, the city’s various entertainment districts serve up performance experiences like nowhere else on earth. South By Southwest, the annual summit of film, interactive media and music festivals and conferences (plus a fair share of historic product launches like Airbnb) has seeded the area’s magnetism for new ventures. As such, monikers like “Silicon Hills” have followed campus openings by Apple, Facebook, Google, Oracle, Dell, Cisco and Hewlett-Packard. A skills shortage—tempered by the pandemic—is being mitigated somewhat by a steady flow of graduates pouring out from the University of Texas and new residents from both coasts.
Being the largest city in a region that generates more than $60 billion in tourism-related revenue every year (2020 being the notable exception) gets you plenty of lift from a rising tide. That’s a lot of visitors with a story to tell if you give them the means. Orlando knows how to get people talking. Its Top 10 ranking in our Promotion category drove its strong ranking among large U.S. cities, including the third-most TripAdvisor reviews of any metropolis. Orlando plans buzzy product releases with military precision—and has suffered deeply when confronted with an invisible enemy it couldn’t defeat quickly, its many high-budget tourism-reliant initiatives cut short, from SeaWorld’s new Sesame Street, rolled out for the show’s 50th anniversary, to LEGOLAND Resort’s debuted Lego Movie World. The city is also expanded its attention beyond family fun. The new Exploria Stadium houses the city’s MLS men’s and women’s teams, with seats for 25,500 fans. Orlando’s Restaurants ranking is also an impressive #12 in the country. As the world’s chefs focus on the post-pandemic opportunity in a place with so many diners on vacation, they’ll open outposts here. The NBA making its pandemic season hub in the city will help a little, but Orlando faces massive challenges in a state where infection rates are setting daily records.
As a global vacation destination, visited by more than six million tourists last year—up 16.2% in five years, according to local numbers, Honolulu is facing an economy that’s been devastated by the pandemic. It has among the highest rates of unemployment in the country and a long struggle back to rebuilding its visitor-focused workforce. Things were going in the right direction for the state at the beginning of 2020, with visitation and spending up 5% year-over-year as late as February. But with the pall of COVID-19 falling swiftly and mercilessly, local estimates are now warning of a 40% drop in tourism for this year, with 6,000 jobs lost as a result. But Honolulu will be back—it has the lowest COVID-19 infection rates among the nation’s cities with MSA populations of 500,000 or higher. Despite the economic devastation, it still simultaneously ranks Top 10 for household income (#8) and in tackling income inequality (#4). It’s also simply too coveted as both a destination and a hometown not to be a place to visit and to live, even amidst uncertain times. It ranked #3 in the nation in our layered Place category, trailing only the much larger centers of New York and San Diego, with its verdant, knife-edge topography exploding into the blue sky from rolling hills every few miles, creating microclimates and hypnotic scenery. The city is second in the nation in our Parks & Outdoors subcategory, led by its powdery beaches, some of the best and safest ocean swimming in the state (often with sea turtles and dolphins) and the option to head for the emerald Ko‘olau Range before or after work.
Given its deep foundation in the creation of the Union almost 250 years ago, Philadelphia is a dense, catalogued embodiment of American values and traditions, easily accessible and eagerly shared. Small wonder, then, that it ranks an impressive #13 for Programming, including Top 10 in the nation for Restaurants (#9) and Culture (#8). It’s home to places like the Liberty Bell Center, of course. And various must-see cultural centers with the term “Independence” in their names. It might be America’s birthplace, but the City of Brotherly Love only keeps one foot firmly rooted in its rich history. The other is stepping into the future, with the 11th-most Fortune 500 companies located here, a growing population and glittering skyline heading ever upward. Philadelphia is also a city rich in hometown pride, with locals reliably turning out to celebrate everything from Super Bowl victories to National Cheesesteak Day. Strong employment prior to the pandemic, driven by a diverse economy, meant population growth, a resilient real estate market and a boom in new construction. But with a poor ranking in Number of COVID-19 per 100,000 (#90 nationally as of July 8, 2020) and Income Equality (#95), the city will need to battle hard to win back the good times.