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My Top 20 Favorite Large US Cities: 5 through 1

Finally, the wait is over for my Top 5 favorite large US cities.

I had no idea the list would garner as much attention as it has. I need to reiterate the point that this is NOT a list of the most walkable cities (although I plan on doing one of those down the road too). You can probably think of this list as “if someone forced me to live in one of these cities, which would I be happiest in.” Which is why, as people have pointed out, I have more west coast cities on this list than southern cities. A lot of that has to do with the natural environment, the tolerance of people, etcetera. Of course, the biggest factor in my list is walkability, so I think my most walkable and my favorite lists would be fairly similar.

Also, I gave some more thought to my list, and I really should have included New Orleans in my Top 20, maybe as number 20. I have not been there post-Katrina, but when I thought about some of the great neighborhoods I’ve visited there, I definitely overlooked it the first time. Another city that I’d love to visit again is Memphis. I think it also has potential to be in my Top 20.

Now, on with the Top 5!

Midtown Sacramento during a Second Saturday Art Walk

Midtown Sacramento during a Second Saturday Art Walk

5. Sacramento, CA – This is probably the biggest shock to most people reading this list, but hey, I have to include the place I live right? And since a large percentage of Americans have never been here, how can they argue? Well, there are certainly plenty of reasons to include Sacramento in the Top 5, and not just because it’s located very close to San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, and Napa Valley. First, many probably don’t know that Sacramento has a Mediterranean climate—hot, dry summers, and mild (to cool), wet winters… with very little humidity! Second, Sacramento is the most racially integrated city in the US. We have one of the best, if not the best, urban tree canopies in all of the United States. We’re also at the epicenter of a lot of national movements like smart growth and complete streets (it certainly helps to be the capital city of a progressive state sometimes). In terms of walkability, I think my neighborhood, Midtown, is one of the best in the United States. It’s like living in a giant small town–I can’t go anywhere without seeing someone I know. There are several other great neighborhoods that border Midtown. Rather than go on and on about Sacramento, I will just give you an example. Our “Main Street” through town, J Street, is not an ideal street for walking and biking compared to its parallel streets. But nevertheless, I could walk about 53 blocks straight down J Street and most every block I’d consider to be pretty walkable. If not for a few interruptions in the grid, I could probably do that on about 10 other streets as well. I don’t feel I’d be able to do that in most other cities. For the bicyclists out there, I’ve heard that we’re the only city in America that has bike lanes on BOTH sides of one way streets, and we have a lot of bike lanes. We also have one of the best bike paths in all of America, the 36-mile path along the American River is truly amazing. Sacramento Photos

Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate Sculpture in Millennium Park - Chicago, IL

Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate Sculpture in Millennium Park - Chicago, IL

4. Chicago, IL – Chicago has forever been near the very top of my favorite American cities. I think it has the best skyline of all US cities, and the contrast with the beautiful Lake Michigan is spectacular. Thanks to Daniel Burnham, much of the Chicago lakefront is now parks and open space, including the awe-inspiring Millennium Park. Chicago has undergone a renaissance of sorts the last 15 years, with the crime-ridden public housing being torn down and replaced yuppie luxury housing (although there are some great projects that include displaced families). Every time I go back, there are more restaurants with outdoor seating, more bike lanes and cyclists, and more landscaping and greening. However, Chicago slipped a bit for me when I visited last summer. I got tired of dealing with the barriers to walking (including the most pushy and rude street people I’ve ever encountered). I also was disappointed with the transit system… though disappointment is understandable with the massive cutbacks the CTA has faced. The system is antiquated and in severe need of an update. I also do not miss those brutal Illinois winters or humid summers either. Overall, Chicago is a great city… and the best sports city in the world! Chicago Photos

Times Square - New York, NY

Times Square - New York, NY

3. New York, NY – I don’t think I need to write a novel about this magnificent city. I am amazed every time I go there how lively it is all 24 hours of the day. It’s also a very clean city. There are just a few reasons why it is not my number one city: 1) the weather 2) not green enough 3) insanely expensive 4) sometimes a bit too urban for my taste 5) It lacks the surrounding natural beauty of some other cities on this list. My fiancé and I both sometimes dream of living here, if only for a few years. Like most of these other cities, I can’t wait for the chance to go back again. New York City Photos

Streetcar Stop at Portland State University - Portland, OR

Streetcar Stop at Portland State University - Portland, OR

2. Portland, OR – I have a serious crush on the city of Portland since my first visit last fall. In fact, it is number one on our places to move to if we left Sacramento. It’s more urban than I expected considering its population. To keep this short, I’m going to list 10 things I absolutely loved about it (not at all exhaustive): 1) So lush and green 2) short block sizes 3) the most breweries per capita of any US city 4) the streetcar, aerial tram, and free transit in the central core 5) the South Park Blocks at Portland State 6) the “lofty” Pearl District 7) the “small-townie” Alphabet District and Trendy Third 8.) Mount Hood looming over the city 9) the little ethnic food vendor stands all over downtown 10) Belmont Station and the funky Voodoo Doughnuts. That’s enough for you to get a flavor for why I love Portland. Portland Photos

So that leaves us with just one more city…

The Painted Ladies at Alamo Square - San Francisco, CA

The Painted Ladies at Alamo Square - San Francisco, CA

1. San Francisco, CA – With apologies to New Orleans and a few other cities, San Francisco is definitely the most unique city in the United States. Every time I go to San Francisco, and I’ve been there maybe 25 times now, it still takes my breath away. I’m always discovering new neighborhoods, each with their different or often funky character and I just cannot put away my camera. It’s certainly a challenging city from a pedestrian and bicyclist standpoint at times–the hills of San Francisco are ridiculously steep at times and vehicular traffic is quite hostile–but you could walk for days around the city non-stop and still not see all the wonderful neighborhoods it has to offer. It also rivals Seattle in terms of natural beauty. The architecture is uniquely distinctive, and it remains that way through most of the city, so you always know you’re in San Francisco. In terms of destinations to walk to and density throughout the city, only New York City can rival it. The public transit leaves a bit to be desired, but it’s much better than most American cities. There is one major reason why I don’t live there right now, and that’s the weather. I like heat in the summertime and I don’t like frequent foggy days. But if I want to have a fun night out on the town with friends, or grab some great ethnic food, you’ll find me in San Francisco. Like Tony Bennett, I leave a piece of my heart there each time I leave. San Francisco Photos

And there you have it. Hope you enjoyed the list. It took a lot more work than I imagined. Here is a recap of the list articles:

My Top 20 Favorite Large US Cities: Intro and 20 through 16

My Top 20 Favorite Large US Cities: 15 through 11

My Top 20 Favorite Large US Cities: 10 through 6

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{ 9 comments… add one }

  • Zac Frank May 31, 2009, 1:21 pm

    As someone who lived in New York for over 7 years and recently moved to San Francisco, I could not disagree more with your ranking and criticisms of New York. I think part of that might come from our different visions for what makes a good city. I think every place should be as big and as dense as NYC. It creates a vibrancy and diversity that is unmatched anywhere in the United States. That density is what creates the 24-hour feel to the city. There are so many people and so much first floor commercial that you can walk just about anywhere in Manhattan, anytime day or night and feel safe because there are others on the street.

    While some neighborhoods in San Francisco are fantastic, the city as a whole leaves a lot to be desired. Outside of the world of technology, there does not seem to be anything important happening here. It is a city defined by transforming what was edgy 40 years ago into a kitsch. It’s a hippy’s Disneyland.

    NYC is also not as expensive as you think. The least I made per year when working there was 35k and that was plenty for me to both live comfortably and enjoy the city.

    But I find it troubling that someone who is dedicated to “walkable neighborhoods” would rate SF so highly. This city IS NOT pedestrian friendly. Right-turn-on-red means you have to constantly watch out for turning cars when crossing the street (something illegal in most of NYC). Signal-timing is designed for motorists. What’s more, almost everyone here has a car whereas few in NYC do. That may just be a product of the incredibly limited public transportation here, but it still is what it is.

    What’s more, there is plenty of natural beauty accessible from NYC. And what’s more, you do NOT need a car to access it. A quick train ride can get you to the beaches or vineyards of Long Island or up to a place like Beacon, New York. New York’s parks are spectacular and diverse, from the refined Central Park to the more bucolic Prospect Park, its waterfronts active and attractive.

    What’s saddest, in my mind, about San Francisco is that it has enormous potential to be a better city but everyone here is so attached to the idea that San Francisco is perfect they don’t even think about if and how they could give up their cars.

  • Eric Fredericks May 31, 2009, 5:37 pm

    Zac, I think you should go back and reread my post. I did say that SF is incredibly hostile to bikes and peds through many parts of the city. There isn’t a city I’ve visited that isn’t. If I was to base my favorites on that alone, I would have picked Sacramento. It’s a walkers paradise in many parts of the city, and it is flat.

    This is just my opinion. Mostly I place San Francisco higher than NYC because it’s in California. I love the lifestyle out here. You can’t tell me that it’s the same, because I know it’s not. And natural beauty? I lived in the East for most of my life before moving here, there’s just no comparison. Other than it being cold water, the beaches are far better here.

    With all of that said, it’s not like NYC was far down my list. As I stated, there isn’t much separating these cities in the first place. I think your harsh criticism was a bit unjustified when you take the whole series into consideration.

    I would also consider moving back to NYC if I were you, because clearly you’re not as happy out here.

  • Rudy Wobito June 7, 2009, 12:18 pm

    Philadelphia was entirely overlooked. Shows how little you travel. It has the 3rd largest downtown population in the US and is very walkable with tons of gorgeous architecture. How can you not include such wonderful city?

    San Francisco is the most overrated city on the planet. I prefer Pittsburgh.

  • John June 10, 2009, 9:21 pm

    I think Zac’s comment illustrates that people have different taste in cities. Some people like them to be more “urban” than others. I agree that, for someone who thrives on the true urban environment, only New York will ever be good enough (I have this problem too)…on this continent, at least. Other people judge a city by its recreational offerings and natural setting. Yet other people only care about whether a city has historic architecture and others still only seek the most modern city. Everyone is different.

    For the true “urban” person, there is only one city: New York. Really, nothing else can compare if “urban” is your thing. On this continent, there are only 6 big cities which will remotely please the mega-urban individual. They are (in order of urban interest – for people who like multiple diverse and vibrant neighborhoods with plenty of good people-watching):

    1. New York (year round)
    2. San Francisco (year round)
    3. Montreal (summer only)
    4. Chicago (summer only)
    5. Toronto (summer only)
    6. Boston (summer only)
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — – -(cut-off line)
    7. Washington, DC (almost made it into the list of acceptably urban cities, but doesn’t quite make the cut)
    8. Los Angeles (I was here 2 weeks ago and found that it has a ton of great neighborhoods, but you REALLY have to know where to find them. The usual “known” neighborhoods of LA are all unbearable, except for Venice. On the whole, due to disconnectedness {plus too much suburbaness everywhere and the fact that LA only a few neighborhoods that remain vibrant after dark}, LA doesn’t quite make the cut for the true “urban” lover)
    9. Philadelphia (sorry, didn’t quite make the cut; this city is still springing back from hard times, but it has some much-needed pedestrian vibrancy to work on still)
    10. Seattle (sorry, not “urban” enough)
    11. Vancouver (sorry, not “urban” enough yet…needs more time)
    12. Portland (sorry, too small)
    13. New Orleans (sorry, has only four interesting neighborhoods – not big enough)
    14. Miami (sorry – just a car city/suburb when you leave South Beach)
    15. San Diego (sorry, not “urban” feeling)
    16. Baltimore (sorry, not interesting enough, although historic — good to visit briefly when you live in neraby DC)
    17. NEVER VISITED, SO I CAN’T COMMENT: Minneapolis, St. Louis, Austin {too tiny though}, San Antonio {also not a “big” city} and Pittsburgh
    18. DEFINITELY DO NOT MAKE THE CUT: Atlanta, Dallas & Houston (all are just giant suburbs with nothing downtown)

  • Taradharma June 9, 2010, 9:13 pm

    My sister lives in Curtis Park (for 15 years) and it is a great community neighborhood in Sacramento. My folks are moving up from San Diego to live in that neighborhood. Sac has come a long way in 30 years — very sophisticated and diverse. Heck, I may even move there!

  • michiganboy July 10, 2010, 9:30 pm

    i completly disagree with this list….howcome detroit is not on here….ive spent much time in detroit….and a lot of other cities on the list and detroit has one of the most beautiful skylines….sure it isnt the most safe city but that is a steriotype….its not that bad…unless u go to 8 mile or something….but as far as in the city, very ppl friendly

  • Motto October 14, 2010, 7:32 pm

    Zac Frank, he is right when he talks about geography and/or scenery.

    He talks about cities that have it IN the city itself. NYC’s main geographic makeup are islands, thats it. Theres no mountains or lakes, etc. that are WITHIN the city itself, that make up a unique part of it that you can use.

    When considering CITIES, you dont factor in the Jersey shore when youre talking about NYC (of even Philly for that matter).

    LA, Seattle, Denver and San Francisco scenery (mainly western cities) have a comparable edge over eastern cities. NYC is such a concrete jungle in itself, and im from NY and agree with him on that.

  • Motto October 14, 2010, 7:34 pm

    regarding LA, Seattle, Denver and SF, I meant their geography/scenery.

  • Peter March 12, 2011, 12:39 pm

    I’m a former New Yorker and former Montrealer (Montrealais?) living in SF and realize these rankings are necessarily idiosyncratic and personal: there’s no other way to justify why one city would “outrank” another. New York is a favorite, amazing, but SF gets quicker ownership of my heart. I understand the SF criticisms and accolades both, but Zac’s a bit off on the car-centric thing: in the core (east of Divisadero, north of Cesar Chavez) it’s really a transit town with carless household rates comparable to Upper West Side NYC. Transportation wonkiness aside, it’s the spirit here that makes it for me: gentle, more forgiving and less dollar-driven, overly self-correcting, to be sure. Still, the dominance of technology naturally arrived in SF because Ideas are what reign here. This is the town that re-invention built and where innovation is prized in all aspects of life – technology, food, revolution, urbanism, social norms, lifestyle, even style (definitely marching to a different drum in ways the highest-shelf Manhattanites appreciate). Nowhere else I’ve been quite matches that. However, on close inspection Pittsburgh comes close. That town is always an eye-opening surprise and would fit nicely in this Top 5 list.

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