Chicago breezes its way to the top spot yet again in Condé Nast Traveler’s long-running reader’s choice poll to crown America’s best big city.
The sixth win in a row is a historic streak for the nation’s third most-populous metro, which draws domestic and international travelers for its numerous hotel and home-share offerings, culinary prowess, impressive brewery lineup, architectural originality, and easily walkable neighborhoods reflecting centuries of immigration.
This year, more than 240,000 readers weighed in on their favorite American cities and Chicago was ranked first overall for an unprecedented sixth straight year — no other city has been voted top big city in the U.S. more than three straight times in the 35-year history of this Condé Nast award.
“There are 77 neighborhoods to explore, where you’ll find cutting-edge restaurants, chilled-out corner bars, and, no matter where you go, some of the most pleasant people you’ll find anywhere,” wrote editor Joe Thomas.
Condé Nast Traveler’s 35th Reader’s Choice Awards for Best Big U.S. City
3. San Diego
5. New York City
7. San Francisco
8. New Orleans
9. Washington, D.C.
Voters are also loyal to the perennial favorite for America’s best small city: South Carolina’s Charleston.
Readers had awarded it the best small city for an incredible 10 consecutive years until it was edged out by Aspen, Colo., in 2021. That swap was not surprising, Condé Nast Traveler editors said, with most travelers seeking out wide open spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. But South Carolina’s “Holy City” took back its prize this year, a return that told the editors travel is showing more signs of a return to historic norms.
Aspen holds its strong appeal in second place, with Santa Fe, N. M., in third. Read all of the travel mainstay’s reader’s choice awards, which can also be searched by hotel, best airport, recreational features and more. Global cities are also ranked, and readers crowned the onetime colonial silver destination and now an architectural goldmine: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Condé Nast Traveler’s 35th Reader’s Choice Awards for Best Small U.S. City
1. Charleston, S.C.
2. Aspen, Colo.
3. Santa Fe, N.M.
4. Alexandria, Va.
5. Savannah, Ga.
6. Greenville, S.C.
7. Key West. Fla.
8. Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.
9. Palm Beach, Fla.
10. Wilmington, N.C.
The ‘before times’?
In the summer of 2022 (arguably the best time to visit a four-season city whose winters can be bitter), Chicago welcomed visitors back to the city in droves. Hotel room demand approached, and in one segment exceeded, pre-pandemic levels, according to Condé Nast Traveler and the city’s Choose Chicago travel campaign.
Total hotel room demand during the summer months (June, July and August) exceeded 3 million room nights, which is nearly 90% of summer 2019 levels. Summer 2022 group hotel room demand, which represents rooms occupied specifically by delegates of large meetings and conventions, exceeded summer 2019 levels, with 1.06 million hotel room nights in summer 2022 compared to 1.03 million in summer 2019.
City officials also argued that 2022 has been a banner year for events in Chicago, with the first-ever Sueños Festival in May and the first U.S. Sail Grand Prix Chicago race at Navy Pier in June, not to mention the full return of Chicago mainstays such as concert festival Lollapalooza, the James Beard Awards and the International Manufacturing Trade Show (IMTS), the largest and longest-running tradeshow in North America.
The travel magazine accolade also justified a bit of bragging from local and state politicians. Incumbant Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, the Democrat who faces rural Republican Darren Bailey in November’s election, lobbed back the “hellhole” criticism that his challenger has been known to say — mostly referencing crime — of the state’s largest city and voting bloc.
Bailey, a state senator, last month said he had “moved” to Chicago to “immerse himself” in the culture of the city after critics said an outsider’s complaints about local leadership, crime statistics, and the city at large were hollow, especially considering he’d have to govern the whole state if he beats Pritzker. Bailey, in fact, said he had moved into the iconic, high-end former John Hancock Center highrise along Chicago’s tourist shopping street, Michigan Avenue.
His real estate choice raised comparisons and contradictions to a historic sleepover, or political stunt depending on who’s asked, when late former mayor Jane Byrne moved into the housing development known as Cabrini-Green for a few days in the early 1980s. Bailey had argued his point from an impromptu press conference at the site where two tourists had been mugged.
Old South meets new?
As for Charleston, its dining scene again gives it the edge. “Excellent restaurants” and “delicious food” were mentioned in countless survey responses, with particular attention paid to seafood, sweet tea and hearty breakfasts, the editors said.
And for anyone desiring a recommendation, Condé Nast Traveler readers are big fans of both classic stays like French Quarter Inn and Wentworth Mansion, as well as newer openings like The Dewberry Charleston (“wonderful hotel with a beautiful view on rooftop bar”) and The Spectator Hotel.
Travelers have a major reason to visit Charleston in 2023, as well: In January, the city will open the highly anticipated International African American Museum (IAAM). The museum has been built upon a former slave trading port, and it will feature artifacts and exhibitions to educate visitors about the African diaspora and how it continues to affect culture, justice and equality.
But both the city, and many of the Florida destinations making the list, do have weather considerations. Charleston, for one, dodged the worst of what Hurricane Ian packed earlier this month.