Photo: Danita Delimont / Alamy
This winter’s forecast: plenty of snow, and even more travellers fleeing it.That’s the message, at least, in this year’s America’s favourite Cities survey. Every year, Travel + Leisure readers vote on dozens of qualities in 35 U.S. cities—from the best microbrews and museums to the most pet-friendly vacations.
Last year, Salt Lake City took the gold medal in the winter category, but this year, the snowy Utah city—along with Denver—skidded down the mountain of readers’ affections, while warmer cities took their places, literally, in the sun. Compounding the situation, The Farmers’ Almanac is predicting another big-snow winter for parts of the U.S., especially in the Northeast.
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“More people appear to be flocking to warmer climates,” confirms Suffolk County, NY, travel agent Tim Joseph, who is seeing an uptick in snowbird-style bookings for this winter. “But I suspect it has as much to do with the weather as the economy.” Caribbean destinations, he points out, offer many affordable all-inclusive resorts—and that’s one reason he loves Puerto Rico’s San Juan, a top 5 city in the survey. “It’s also a real foodie city, and it’s still relatively low on the list for many travellers, so it’s not too crowded.”
San Juan may be getting a little more crowded this year, along with classic snowbird destinations such as Miami, Honolulu, and Phoenix, which all landed in the top 10. Winter-frigid Anchorage, Minneapolis, and Chicago occupied the bottom slots out of the 35.
Yet it’s worth noting that plenty of top 20 cities aren’t beachy paradises. Instead, they have mild winters, seasonal events, and often the best prices of the year. Take Houston—which barreled into the top 10 this year—where cooler temps, along with the world’s biggest rodeo championship, make the city come alive.
In other top 20 cities, winter just means having the city to yourself. You’ll find shorter lines at theme parks in Orlando and San Diego, and you’ll have an easier time getting tables at hot restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“I’m not looking for 90-degree beach weather,” says publicist Sue Jean Chun, who regularly goes to New Orleans during winter—though not for Mardi Gras. “I just want a city where food and music are the focus.”
The Connecticut resident also enjoys another simple winter pleasure in the Crescent City: “being able to walk out the door in jeans and a light sweater,” she says, “rather than a puffy jacket and beat-up boots.”
Valentine's Day is a big draw in this charming city--no surprise, since Savannah came in second place for February 14 visits, and first for romantic getaways. Otherwise, winter is low season in this history-rich city, with thinner crowds and lower prices. To see why it also scored in the top 10 for its cocktail hour, come for New Year's Eve, when the loose open-container laws are on full display in the quaint town squares.
According to voters, winter is the best time of year to come here--whether you get the kids out of school, or if you just want to chat up Mickey on your own. Indeed, in the No. 1 city for family vacations, winter means shorter lines at the theme parks--with the exception of the weeks right around Christmas and New Year's. Voters also gave the area high marks for its variety of hotel options.
This year, the Utah city slid seven spots from last year's winning position. Even so, it's still a prime hub for skiing, in part because you can stay downtown and drive a half hour to the slopes. During winter, you'll also save a lot of money by staying in the city--one way that Salt Lake won the silver in affordability. Voters indicated, however, that you can skip the city's ethnic food, which came in last place.
It's the forefather of American snowbird vacations, and dazzles visitors with its mojitos and good-looking locals. While the Florida city staged a major comeback from last year's No. 15 position, it's still a little daunting to some travellers. Miami ranked as one of the noisiest and most expensive cities, and it took the title for having the nation's worst drivers.
The survey's weather champion since 2009, San Diego has climbed from last year's No. 13 for winter visits. Even though temperatures can easily reach 70, it's still a fairly quiet time of year here--great for exploring the zoo, golfing at Torrey Pines, or jogging on the beaches (you just might want a wetsuit to swim or surf). Readers also voted the city as one of the safest and cleanest in the country.
This Sunbelt city is at its best during winter, with highs in the 50s or 60s--just the right temp for ice skating outdoors, open-air concerts, or, come late February, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (the world's biggest). Compared with the muggy, dismally ranked summer, this is also the ideal time of year to enjoy the city's well-regarded museums and classical music, as well as its decadent burgers.
A little party called Mardi Gras is an obvious draw for travellers during winter. Before that, you can find festive holiday activities--the city ranks in the top 3 for Christmas and New Year's--as well as lower hotel rates and more elbow room in the No. 1--ranked cafés. Come during the first week in January, and you'll see local sports fans out in force: the city is hosting both the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the Allstate BCS National Championship.
The Arizona metropolis rose two slots in the survey this year, but it's all about timing for travellers. Between the holiday season and spring break, Phoenix ranked in the top 10, but it came in last place for summer and its blistering 4th of July. Voters were perhaps most interested in spending their days here shopping, golfing, or lounging around the spa, and then turning in early: the cities ranked in the bottom 5 for nightlife.
The Hawaiian capital holds steady in its silver-medal slot from last year, and still offers solid winter credentials: great weather, fabulous outdoor activities, and appeal for both couples and families. In fact, there was no season that voters didn't like here--the worst was summer, which still came in at a magnetic No. 13.
This winter, voters put the most value on sunshine and stellar deals. The capital of Puerto Rico--which was No. 3 last year--got high marks for being affordable, but it's more than just beach chairs and cocktails. It ranked near the top for cultural getaways, and it's a foodie magnet, winning both the ethnic fare and street food categories.
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