Best Cities for Tourists

 
 
 
 

by Douglas Burger

One of the biggest decisions a person has to make each year is how to spend his or her paid time off. Each person wants to get something different out of vacation -- from relaxation or exploration to seeing family and friends. For this study, we tried to focus on travelers and tourists who want to experience a new city in the best and most efficient way possible.

The Best Cities for Tourists

Seeking to determine the best cities in the U.S. for tourists, we used 21 data points from eight reputable sources to come up with our rankings. Below you will find the results, as well as a detailed methodology describing how we arrived at them.

  • Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA

    • The Attractions: 6
    • The Stay: 31
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA

    • The Attractions: 3
    • The Stay: 38
  • Omaha-Council Bluffs, NE-IA

    • The Attractions: 19
    • The Stay: 38
  • New Orleans-Metairie, LA

    • The Attractions: 54
    • The Stay: 5
  • Charleston-North Charleston, SC

    • The Attractions: 57
    • The Stay: 3

The Rest of the Best

The five above were tops, but 195 other cities were under consideration. Where did yours rank?

OverallCityThe AttractionsThe Stay
1Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA631
2San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA338
3Omaha-Council Bluffs, NE-IA1938
4New Orleans-Metairie, LA545
5Charleston-North Charleston, SC573
6Des Moines-West Des Moines, IA4516
7Austin-Round Rock, TX1745
8San Diego-Carlsbad, CA2050
8Wilmington, NC5614
10Lexington-Fayette, KY2754
11Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH1172
11Richmond, VA3251
13Reno, NV4440
14Tucson, AZ4144
15Barnstable Town, MA6422
16Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD7017
17Sioux Falls, SD7018
18Albuquerque, NM5337
18Savannah, GA864
20Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA5141
21Santa Rosa, CA888
22Oklahoma City, OK6830
23Durham-Chapel Hill, NC3468
23Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV1884
25St. Louis, MO-IL2281
26San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles-Arroyo Grande, CA797
27Kansas City, MO-KS9115
27Madison, WI2104
27New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA3076
27Rochester, NY5101
31San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX9710
32Asheville, NC1395
32Nashville-Davidson--Murfreesboro--Franklin, TN4365
34Jacksonville, FL1092
34Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD4170
34Raleigh, NC6348
34Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA5556
38Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA4112
39Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI14103
40Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX8929
41Cleveland-Elyria, OH5862
41Columbus, OH9426
41Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL1137
44Norwich-New London, CT6061
45Charlottesville, VA15110
46Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA9235
47Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL8346
48Harrisburg-Carlisle, PA10723
49Anchorage, AK9124
50Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC6074
50San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA7559
50Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL10034
53Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA1135
54Sacramento--Roseville--Arden-Arcade, CA29108
55Urban Honolulu, HI8059
56Memphis, TN-MS-AR1356
57Greensboro-High Point, NC6578
58Tulsa, OK8757
59Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN6679
59Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson, IN4699
59Salinas, CA8362
62Ann Arbor, MI33117
62Springfield, MO13020
64Portland-South Portland, ME21134
64Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC6986
66Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX13125
67Chattanooga, TN-GA12928
68Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI52106
68Columbia, SC1571
70Atlantic City-Hammonton, NJ15011
71Amarillo, TX14521
71Cedar Rapids, IA13432
73Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, AR-MO11455
74Myrtle Beach-Conway-North Myrtle Beach, SC-NC11852
75Roanoke, VA9873
76Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, NY24148
77Syracuse, NY36137
78Burlington-South Burlington, VT28147
79Albany-Schenectady-Troy, NY31145
79Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO16160
79Providence-Warwick, RI-MA22154
82Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI12165
82Pittsburgh, PA10167
84Duluth, MN-WI39139
85Lincoln, NE50130
86Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway, AR1758
87Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT58126
87Greenville-Anderson-Mauldin, SC14836
89Pensacola-Ferry Pass-Brent, FL17312
90Fort Collins, CO35151
90Prescott, AZ70116
92Mobile, AL16027
92Salisbury, MD-DE62125
92Shreveport-Bossier City, LA1789
95College Station-Bryan, TX14642
96Salem, OR37153
97Knoxville, TN14447
97Salt Lake City, UT9992
99Charleston, WV15933
99Jackson, MS17913
99Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV74118
102Eugene, OR26169
103Boulder, CO25171
104Lafayette, LA12275
105Colorado Springs, CO40158
106Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island, FL11884
107Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI101102
107Spokane-Spokane Valley, WA47156
109Corpus Christi, TX14758
110Crestview-Fort Walton Beach-Destin, FL15453
110New Haven-Milford, CT79128
110Tallahassee, FL18324
113Augusta-Richmond County, GA-SC18919
113Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL95113
115Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, PA-NJ96114
115Gainesville, FL12090
117Trenton, NJ102110
118Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ12588
119Wichita, KS12791
120Lancaster, PA49170
120Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN73146
122Akron, OH85136
123Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA38184
124Springfield, MA106119
125Champaign-Urbana, IL15377
125North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, FL78152
127Kennewick-Richland, WA116115
128Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA104128
129Waco, TX17167
130Birmingham-Hoover, AL133107
130Gulfport-Biloxi-Pascagoula, MS17664
130Topeka, KS17466
133McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX19843
134Bakersfield, CA16183
134Columbus, GA-AL19549
134Grand Rapids-Wyoming, MI48196
137Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT88159
138Evansville, IN-KY140109
139Dayton, OH112138
139Lubbock, TX120130
141Baton Rouge, LA15598
142Green Bay, WI67187
143Appleton, WI123132
143Chico, CA16293
145Boise City, ID82174
146Macon, GA17286
147Killeen-Temple, TX17782
148Erie, PA77183
149Lynchburg, VA81181
150Montgomery, AL19569
151Reading, PA90178
152Binghamton, NY107163
152Brownsville-Harlingen, TX19971
152Fresno, CA143127
155Olympia-Tumwater, WA103168
155Scranton--Wilkes-Barre--Hazleton, PA166105
157Davenport-Moline-Rock Island, IA-IL124149
158Kalamazoo-Portage, MI76200
159Fort Smith, AR-OK18693
160Laredo, TX20080
160Winston-Salem, NC141139
162Peoria, IL117164
163Worcester, MA-CT93189
164Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, NC128155
165Vallejo-Fairfield, CA142142
166Hagerstown-Martinsburg, MD-WV163122
167Ocala, FL19295
167Yakima, WA115172
169Huntsville, AL165123
170Fayetteville, NC194100
171Tuscaloosa, AL180120
172Rockford, IL111191
173Toledo, OH126177
174Bremerton-Silverdale, WA105199
174El Paso, TX183121
174Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, OH-PA138166
177Canton-Massillon, OH110198
177Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach, FL132176
179Stockton-Lodi, CA167143
180South Bend-Mishawaka, IN-MI168144
181Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX181133
181Manchester-Nashua, NH135179
183Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, FL157161
184Modesto, CA170150
184Visalia-Porterville, CA181139
186Utica-Rome, NY139182
187Huntington-Ashland, WV-KY-OH149175
188York-Hanover, PA135190
189Lansing-East Lansing, MI168173
190Fort Wayne, IN152191
191Greeley, CO156188
192Kingsport-Bristol-Bristol, TN-VA150195
193Lakeland-Winter Haven, FL189162
194Merced, CA197157
195Port St. Lucie, FL163197
196Spartanburg, SC185185
197Clarksville, TN-KY193180
198Provo-Orem, UT188186
199Flint, MI187194
200Ogden-Clearfield, UT189193

The Top (and Bottom) Five Cities for...

Every tourist’s budget is going to look different, but we split our data points into two categories that hopefully best represent the spending decisions of the average tourist. Here we take a look at four of those data points.

Most Breweries

A brewery tour is a great way to learn more about a city and its history, while also getting the day-drinking started. We used U.S. Census Bureau to calculate the number of breweries per 1,000 members of the population. Colorado likes its beer, as Denver led the way in total breweries, and Boulder took the top spot when adjusted for population.

RankCityBreweries
1Boulder, CO0.069
2Fort Collins, CO0.058
3Burlington-South Burlington, VT0.037
4Asheville, NC0.037
5Charlottesville, VA0.031
RankCityBreweries
200Stockton-Lodi, CA0
199Killeen-Temple, TX0
198Visalia-Porterville, CA0
197Sioux Falls, SD0
196Amarillo, TX0

Most Tour Guides

After finishing the brewery tour, it might be a good idea to work off some of those carbs with a walking tour. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us the number of tour guides employed in a city, and we adjusted the data point per 1,000 members of the population.

RankCityTour Guides
1Honolulu, HI1.00
2Savannah, GA0.78
3Asheville, NC0.53
4Ann Arbor, MI0.51
5Charleston-North Charleston, SC0.50
RankCityTour Guides
200Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, OH-PA0
199Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX0
198Pensacola-Ferry Pass-Brent, FL0
197Binghamton, NY0
196Hagerstown-Martinsburg, MD-WV0

Most Hotels

All that drinking and walking has our tourists pretty tired, so it’s time to head back to the hotel. The U.S. Census Bureau was used to calculate this data point, again adjusted for a city’s population.

RankCityHotels
1Barnstable Town, MA0.725
2Myrtle Beach-Conway-North Myrtle Beach, SC-NC0.552
2San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles-Arroyo Grande, CA0.550
4Salisbury, MD-DE0.526
5Portland-South Portland, ME0.459
RankCityHotels
200Worcester, MA-CT0.067
199Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, NC0.069
198Trenton, NJ0.070
197Reading, PA0.073
195Ogden-Clearfield, UT0.073

Experts' Take

To vary our coverage of the best cities for tourists, we put the data aside and sought out expert for answers to questions of concern.

Eric Espino is the co-founder of TourMega.com.

How has domestic tourism changed over the last decade?

Looking back over the past decade, we cannot discount the impact the Great Recession had on domestic tourism, which in many ways altered the tourism landscape permanently. Fortunately, the American economy has improved, employment levels are growing, and low inflation has countered lackluster wage growth to provide Americans with more disposable income to take part in tourism domestically and abroad.

Economics aside, the use of social media has become a major factor in domestic tourism over the past decade. The various platforms provide tour operators and governments with a dynamic way to engage travelers and for travelers to share their experiences with the world. The fact that it is commonplace for a company or government agency to have a social media coordinator employed on a full time basis says a lot about the importance of such platforms.

Finally, Americans continue to look to the web to source almost anything, including tours and activities. Over the past decade, tour bookings online have increased and the use of online tour platforms continue to grow, especially among the experiential tour segment (e.g. TourNative and EatWith). What’s interesting about this however is that while travelers are increasingly looking to book tours and activities online, the guides and companies themselves are still well behind in terms of providing tourists this option; it is estimated that over 80% of tour providers globally do not offer this option.

How are cities drawing both domestic and international tourists to their cities?

As a former municipal finance professional, I saw how important tourism was for cities throughout the U.S., and it will continue to be a topic that many will focus on given its economic potential. Cities that are successful in drawing tourists generally have the infrastructure -- transit, lodging, dining and entertainment options -- in place to cater to travelers with a variety of interests and budgets. For the smaller, less developed cities, success is often the result of a major natural resource or industry -- think Niagara Falls or the wine industry in Napa -- that the city and surrounding communities have embraced and collectively market. Beyond that, cities find success in drawing tourists by having a nicely designed website -- with different language options -- and a social media presence that can engage broad segments of travelers and demonstrates that tourists from different parts of the world and walks of life are welcome. Finally, it has gotten to the point that tourists expect that they will have access to WiFi and so cities that provide that resource to travelers, either through a network of their own or a collection of hotspots provided by businesses, have an easier time drawing visitors.

How does the U.S. compare to the rest of the world when it comes to tourism?

The U.S. is considered the world’s second-largest source market for tourism, behind China, with 2015 tourism expenditures estimated at $120 billion and 2015 outbound travelers estimated at 73 million (World Tourism Organization). When considering how much is spent in the destination country by foreign travelers, the U.S. is by far the number one international destination with international tourism receipts estimated at $220.8 billion in 2014, approximately 3.3 times the amount spent by international travelers in the next country, France (World Bank). As such, U.S. tourism is a major economic driver for the country as a whole as well as the international destinations that seek to draw American tourists to them each year.

What are one or two cities that are attracting tourists that aren't normally on the top of people's list and why are these cities attractive?

Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Col., are two cities that come to mind that are attracting tourists that are not normally on the top of travelers’ lists.

Austin has gained significant notoriety from its now famous SXSW event. By providing the space and welcoming atmosphere for attendees from all over the world and by attracting the “creative” industries, the city was able to grow with and capitalize on a unique event that grew from under 1,000 attendees in the late 1980’s to 50,000 plus in the past few years. However, Austin is more than just SXSW and has become a year-round destination over the years. The popular “Keep Austin Weird” slogan does a good job of capturing what makes Austin a popular destination. It shows that people in Austin want to be themselves which in turn signals to tourists that visiting will be a fun time with unique experiences.

Boulder doesn’t have the benefit of a SXSW that will bring in travelers from all over the world on annual basis. However, it does benefit from a major public university in the city, its close proximity to many wonderful options for outdoor enthusiasts, over 300 days of sunshine each year, and some really good craft beer options. In addition, the city itself is considered very progressive, welcoming, and with a smaller footprint than Denver that offers travelers a small town feel. The state’s passage of laws allowing recreational marijuana use have also resulted in an increase in tourism throughout the state which benefits a city like Boulder given its laid-back feel and friendly environment.

Luca Alessandrini is a consultant for FUHWE.

What are one or two cities that are attracting tourists that aren't normally on the top of people's list and why are these cities attractive?

A city that continuously attracts tourists but is not known to be a top destination is New Orleans. Visiting the city can be compared to an experience abroad while still being in the U.S. There is something about New Orleans that makes people feel far away from home... in a very romantic way.

Lindsey Epperly is a luxury travel consultant and the owner of Epperly Travel.

What are one or two cities that are attracting tourists that aren't normally on the top of people's list, and why are these cities attractive?

Newport Beach, Calif. -- while Southern California is always a great option, I've found travelers specifically love the Newport Beach area as it encompasses what they were imagining when they think of "SoCal." From a stay at the renowned Pelican Hill, where guests can enjoy the privacy of an ocean view bungalow, to a shopping spree at Fashion Island, travelers can experience the Newport life firsthand.

Methodology

In order to determine the best cities for tourists, we looked at 21 data points from eight reputable sources. Not all data points had data available for every city. In these cases, cities without a data figure were given a last-placed ranking in that specific category. Incomplete data points were given a lower weighting (in parenthesis below).

For tourists, there’s a balance that needs to be found between cost and enjoyment. Tourists want to experience a city but not empty their wallet while doing it. We had this mindset when compiling our rankings and creating our two categories.

For data point nine, we felt that a higher wage for tour guides would equal a better tour. There may be an added cost passed onto the tourists.

Safety is also an important value for tourists when traveling to a new city. Less crime and more police officers ranked a city higher in our study.

Below, we break down each statistic and point to its origin.

The Attractions

  1. Number of museums, historical sites and other institutions / U.S. Census Bureau, 2014
  2. Number of amusement, gambling and recreation industries per 1,000 members of the population / U.S. Census Bureau, 2014
  3. Walkability Rankings (.5) / Walk Score, 2016
  4. Number of breweries per 1,000 members of the population / U.S. Census Bureau, 2014
  5. Number of wineries per 1,000 members of the population / U.S. Census Bureau, 2014
  6. Average cost of three-course meal at a mid-range restaurant (.5) / Numbeo, 2016
  7. Best Cities for Music Fans / ValuePenguin Research, 2016
  8. Number of tour guides per 1,000 members of the population / Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015
  9. Median hourly pay for tour guides / Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015

The Stay

  1. Number of hotels per 1,000 members of the population / U.S. Census Bureau, 2014
  2. Average number of days per year with precipitation / National Centers for Environmental Information, 2014
  3. Average number of days per year with a temperature below 32 and above 90 / National Centers for Environmental Information, 2014
  4. Hotel Price Index (.5) / Numbeo, 2016
  5. Airfare costs by airport / Cheapflights.com, 2015
  6. Taxi cab start cost Numbeo, 2016
  7. Taxi cab cost per 1km / Numbeo, 2016
  8. Number of taxi cab drivers employed per 1,000 members of the population / Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015
  9. One-way local transportation ticket cost (.5) / Numbeo, 2016
  10. Travel costs per day (.5) / Numbeo, 2016
  11. Instances of violent crime per 100,000 members of the population / FBI, 2014
  12. Number of police officers per 1,000 members of the population / Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015

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