For the first time ever, Chicago took a top spot as the best big city in the U.S., in Condé Nast Traveler’s annual Readers’ Choice Awards, winning accolades for its “innovative chefs” and leading restaurants.
The destination, notorious for being dubbed America’s “Second City,” stole the honors from last year’s winner New York, which finished second in this year's annual rankings. This is the first time Chicago has won top Readers’ Choice honors.
“When in doubt, take a boat tour of the city and float beneath some of the country’s tallest buildings,” Conde Nast said about this popular destination, which was featured earlier this year in Travel Market Report for its numerous neighborhoods growing their appeal for experiential travelers, with a focus on great restaurants, independent retailers, and local nightlife.
Rounding out the top five large U.S. cities were: New York, San Francisco, Honolulu and Boston.
Small cities offer that authentic experience
In the best small cities in the U.S. category, Charleston, S.C., won for the seventh year in a row, featured once again for its southern charm.
“Underneath its sleepy veneer, the city is known for its dynamic food scene — where destination dining reflects its English, French, and West African roots,” Conde Nast said, “along with a thriving theater scene, bustling King Street, and historic City Market. Come evening, stroll along The Battery and take it all in.”
In second place was Aspen, Colo., also last year’s second-place finisher. A surprise third place was garnered by Greenville, S.C., graced with great food and the 32-acre Falls Park in the middle of the city.
“Plan a trip to Greenville now and you might see it just on the cusp of stardom,” which is being touted for being an “up-and-coming food lover’s town” with a farm-to-table scene “rising to the ranks of Asheville,” Conde Nast said.
Santa Fe, N.M., won fourth small city honors for its status as New Mexico’s “political and creative capital.” The city’s wide streets and adobe buildings helped inspire the great American artist, Georgia O’Keefe, and Conde Nast said visitors will be inspired by its African comfort food at Jambo Café and green chili enchiladas at The Shed.
Fifth most popular small city went to California’s upscale surfing town, Laguna Beach. Historic preservation and environmental protection initiatives make the town an outdoor lover’s paradise. Whether lounging on the beaches, hiking the 7,000-acre Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, or snorkeling at Crystal Cove State Park, Conde Nast highly recommends this beach town that looks like a TV set.
Top cities abroad include traditional winners
Internationally, the top reader favorites included perennial winners, but a slight shift in the top three shook things up a bit. Last year’s number one city, Tokyo, was recognized again at the peak of reader lists, noted for its “mix of contradictions, from ultra-modern, neon-lit skyscrapers to tranquil temples, historic shrines, and expansive forests.”
Tokyo ranked high for foodies, as it has “more Michelin stars than any other place on earth,” Conde Nast said, recommending “a bowl of inventive ramen at Kikanbo, or sample rare Japanese whiskey at Bar Ben Fiddich.”
Second place went to Austria’s capital, Vienna, for being “artistic, exquisite, and largely shaped by its musical and intellectual foundations” and “packed with culture. Make time to get a figurative taste of royalty at Schönbrunn, the Habsburgs’ former summer residence, and get an actual taste of Sachertorte, a chocolate cake that is one of the city’s culinary specialties.”
And third place went to last year’s second-place winner, Kyoto, Japan. Conde Nast called the city a place where travelers can “take a step back in time.” It’s 1,600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines and renovated machiyas (one-time homes to craftsmen), make Kyoto “one of the most well-preserved cities in Japan.”
But don’t let its age fool you, Conde Nast said. “Because it was once the imperial capital, Kyoto is also well known for kaiseki, the traditional multi-course meal that changes seasonally: for an authentic meal without Michelin prices, try 200-year-old ryokan Kinmata.”
More than 300,000 readers contributed to the publication’s 30th edition of the highly anticipated annual awards, submitting millions of ratings and tens of thousands of comments. A record-breaking 7,320 hotels and resorts received votes, as did 610 cities, 225 islands, 468 cruise ships, 158 airlines, and 195 airports.
Additionally, the upcoming newsstand edition of Conde Nast Traveler will talk about the popularity of holistic spa resorts; a return to simple kick-back-and-relax destinations, instead of “multi-destination, run-around-see-everything vacations”; and increasing interest in smaller airports and secondary cities.