Best Cities for Tourists

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.

1. Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA

  • The Attractions: 6
  • The Stay: 31

2. San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA

  • The Attractions: 3
  • The Stay: 38

3. Omaha-Council Bluffs, NE-IA

  • The Attractions: 19
  • The Stay: 38

4. New Orleans-Metairie, LA

  • The Attractions: 54
  • The Stay: 5

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?

Overall
City
The Attractions
The 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
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CA","8","88"],["22","Oklahoma City, OK","68","30"],["23","Durham-Chapel Hill, NC","34","68"],["23","Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV","18","84"],["25","St. Louis, MO-IL","22","81"],["26","San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles-Arroyo Grande, CA","7","97"],["27","Kansas City, MO-KS","91","15"],["27","Madison, WI","2","104"],["27","New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA","30","76"],["27","Rochester, NY","5","101"],["31","San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX","97","10"],["32","Asheville, NC","13","95"],["32","Nashville-Davidson--Murfreesboro--Franklin, TN","43","65"],["34","Jacksonville, FL","109","2"],["34","Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD","41","70"],["34","Raleigh, NC","63","48"],["34","Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA","55","56"],["38","Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA","4","112"],["39","Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI","14","103"],["40","Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX","89","29"],["41","Cleveland-Elyria, OH","58","62"],["41","Columbus, OH","94","26"],["41","Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL","113","7"],["44","Norwich-New London, CT","60","61"],["45","Charlottesville, VA","15","110"],["46","Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA","92","35"],["47","Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL","83","46"],["48","Harrisburg-Carlisle, PA","107","23"],["49","Anchorage, AK","9","124"],["50","Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC","60","74"],["50","San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA","75","59"],["50","Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL","100","34"],["53","Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA","1","135"],["54","Sacramento--Roseville--Arden-Arcade, CA","29","108"],["55","Urban Honolulu, HI","80","59"],["56","Memphis, TN-MS-AR","135","6"],["57","Greensboro-High Point, NC","65","78"],["58","Tulsa, OK","87","57"],["59","Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN","66","79"],["59","Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson, IN","46","99"],["59","Salinas, CA","83","62"],["62","Ann Arbor, MI","33","117"],["62","Springfield, MO","130","20"],["64","Portland-South Portland, ME","21","134"],["64","Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC","69","86"],["66","Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX","131","25"],["67","Chattanooga, TN-GA","129","28"],["68","Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI","52","106"],["68","Columbia, SC","157","1"],["70","Atlantic City-Hammonton, NJ","150","11"],["71","Amarillo, TX","145","21"],["71","Cedar Rapids, IA","134","32"],["73","Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, AR-MO","114","55"],["74","Myrtle Beach-Conway-North Myrtle Beach, SC-NC","118","52"],["75","Roanoke, VA","98","73"],["76","Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, NY","24","148"],["77","Syracuse, NY","36","137"],["78","Burlington-South Burlington, VT","28","147"],["79","Albany-Schenectady-Troy, NY","31","145"],["79","Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO","16","160"],["79","Providence-Warwick, RI-MA","22","154"],["82","Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI","12","165"],["82","Pittsburgh, PA","10","167"],["84","Duluth, MN-WI","39","139"],["85","Lincoln, NE","50","130"],["86","Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway, AR","175","8"],["87","Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT","58","126"],["87","Greenville-Anderson-Mauldin, SC","148","36"],["89","Pensacola-Ferry Pass-Brent, FL","173","12"],["90","Fort Collins, CO","35","151"],["90","Prescott, AZ","70","116"],["92","Mobile, AL","160","27"],["92","Salisbury, MD-DE","62","125"],["92","Shreveport-Bossier City, LA","178","9"],["95","College Station-Bryan, TX","146","42"],["96","Salem, OR","37","153"],["97","Knoxville, TN","144","47"],["97","Salt Lake City, UT","99","92"],["99","Charleston, WV","159","33"],["99","Jackson, MS","179","13"],["99","Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV","74","118"],["102","Eugene, OR","26","169"],["103","Boulder, CO","25","171"],["104","Lafayette, LA","122","75"],["105","Colorado Springs, CO","40","158"],["106","Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island, FL","118","84"],["107","Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI","101","102"],["107","Spokane-Spokane Valley, WA","47","156"],["109","Corpus Christi, TX","147","58"],["110","Crestview-Fort Walton Beach-Destin, FL","154","53"],["110","New Haven-Milford, CT","79","128"],["110","Tallahassee, FL","183","24"],["113","Augusta-Richmond County, GA-SC","189","19"],["113","Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL","95","113"],["115","Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, PA-NJ","96","114"],["115","Gainesville, FL","120","90"],["117","Trenton, NJ","102","110"],["118","Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ","125","88"],["119","Wichita, KS","127","91"],["120","Lancaster, PA","49","170"],["120","Louisville\/Jefferson County, KY-IN","73","146"],["122","Akron, OH","85","136"],["123","Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA","38","184"],["124","Springfield, MA","106","119"],["125","Champaign-Urbana, IL","153","77"],["125","North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, FL","78","152"],["127","Kennewick-Richland, WA","116","115"],["128","Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA","104","128"],["129","Waco, TX","171","67"],["130","Birmingham-Hoover, AL","133","107"],["130","Gulfport-Biloxi-Pascagoula, MS","176","64"],["130","Topeka, KS","174","66"],["133","McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX","198","43"],["134","Bakersfield, CA","161","83"],["134","Columbus, GA-AL","195","49"],["134","Grand Rapids-Wyoming, MI","48","196"],["137","Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT","88","159"],["138","Evansville, IN-KY","140","109"],["139","Dayton, OH","112","138"],["139","Lubbock, TX","120","130"],["141","Baton Rouge, LA","155","98"],["142","Green Bay, WI","67","187"],["143","Appleton, WI","123","132"],["143","Chico, CA","162","93"],["145","Boise City, ID","82","174"],["146","Macon, GA","172","86"],["147","Killeen-Temple, TX","177","82"],["148","Erie, PA","77","183"],["149","Lynchburg, VA","81","181"],["150","Montgomery, AL","195","69"],["151","Reading, PA","90","178"],["152","Binghamton, NY","107","163"],["152","Brownsville-Harlingen, TX","199","71"],["152","Fresno, CA","143","127"],["155","Olympia-Tumwater, WA","103","168"],["155","Scranton--Wilkes-Barre--Hazleton, PA","166","105"],["157","Davenport-Moline-Rock Island, IA-IL","124","149"],["158","Kalamazoo-Portage, MI","76","200"],["159","Fort Smith, AR-OK","186","93"],["160","Laredo, TX","200","80"],["160","Winston-Salem, NC","141","139"],["162","Peoria, IL","117","164"],["163","Worcester, MA-CT","93","189"],["164","Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, NC","128","155"],["165","Vallejo-Fairfield, CA","142","142"],["166","Hagerstown-Martinsburg, MD-WV","163","122"],["167","Ocala, FL","192","95"],["167","Yakima, WA","115","172"],["169","Huntsville, AL","165","123"],["170","Fayetteville, NC","194","100"],["171","Tuscaloosa, AL","180","120"],["172","Rockford, IL","111","191"],["173","Toledo, OH","126","177"],["174","Bremerton-Silverdale, WA","105","199"],["174","El Paso, TX","183","121"],["174","Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, OH-PA","138","166"],["177","Canton-Massillon, OH","110","198"],["177","Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach, FL","132","176"],["179","Stockton-Lodi, CA","167","143"],["180","South Bend-Mishawaka, IN-MI","168","144"],["181","Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX","181","133"],["181","Manchester-Nashua, NH","135","179"],["183","Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, FL","157","161"],["184","Modesto, CA","170","150"],["184","Visalia-Porterville, CA","181","139"],["186","Utica-Rome, NY","139","182"],["187","Huntington-Ashland, WV-KY-OH","149","175"],["188","York-Hanover, PA","135","190"],["189","Lansing-East Lansing, MI","168","173"],["190","Fort Wayne, IN","152","191"],["191","Greeley, CO","156","188"],["192","Kingsport-Bristol-Bristol, TN-VA","150","195"],["193","Lakeland-Winter Haven, FL","189","162"],["194","Merced, CA","197","157"],["195","Port St. Lucie, FL","163","197"],["196","Spartanburg, SC","185","185"],["197","Clarksville, TN-KY","193","180"],["198","Provo-Orem, UT","188","186"],["199","Flint, MI","187","194"],["200","Ogden-Clearfield, UT","189","193"]],"footnote":"","hasMarginBottom":true,"isExpandable":true,"isSortable":false,"maxWidth":"1215","showSearch":false,"sortColumnIndex":0,"sortDirection":"asc"}

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.

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

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

Rank
City
Hotels
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
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Rank
City
Hotels
200Worcester, MA-CT0.067
199Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, NC0.069
198Trenton, NJ0.070
197Reading, PA0.073
195Ogden-Clearfield, UT0.073
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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.

Eric Founder headshot

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.

Luca Alessandrini headshot

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.

Lindsey Epperly Headshot

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

Justin is a Sr. Research Analyst at ValuePenguin, focusing on small business lending. He was a corporate strategy associate at IBM.