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
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
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
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
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
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