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The Best Cities in the United States in 2021

By AFAR Editors

Jun 29, 2021

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San Francisco remains in upper echelons of Resonance’s top 10 best U.S. cities list in 2021.

Photo by Boris Vetshev/Shutterstock

San Francisco remains in upper echelons of Resonance’s top 10 best U.S. cities list in 2021.

New York is back on top of Resonance’s annual list of the best cities, while Denver and Phoenix are new entries in the top 10.

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Many of the factors that make the biggest cities in the United States great places to visit—like good weather, world-class museums, and quality restaurants—also make them great cities to live in full time. Resonance, a consultancy group in real estate, tourism, and economic development, considered these factors as well as user-generated data from social media to create a comprehensive ranking of the best cities in the United States for both travelers and residents.

Of course, nowhere has escaped the pandemic, and some places were hit harder than others. At the nadir of the health crisis, while restaurants, bars, and hotels closed and visitor numbers plummeted, many urban dwellers left their homes for more spacious places, either temporarily or permanently, and some thought our big cities would never be the same. However, the very things that made these urban centers appealing in the first place, the entrepreneurship, creativity, and collaboration, have fueled ferocious comebacks from coast to coast.

How the cities are ranked

To determine which cities would be considered for this list, Resonance looked at U.S. cities with populations of more than 500,000. Each city was ranked based on a combination of user-generated data from locals and visitors from TripAdvisor and Instagram, as well as core statistics, including median household income and crime rates. Those ranking metrics covered 23 areas grouped into six core categories: Place, People, Programming, Product, Prosperity, and Promotion.

Place: Metrics in the Place category include weather (specifically the average number of sunny days), safety (violent crime rate), as well as outdoor spaces and sights and landmarks (specifically the number recommended by locals and visitors on TripAdvisor).

Product: The Product category is where the infrastructure of the city is considered, including its airport connectivity (the number of direct destinations served by the city’s airports), plus the number of attractions, museums, major league sports teams, and convention centers it has. University rankings within each of these cities were factored into this category, too.

People: The People category takes into account the percentage of the city’s population with a bachelor’s degree or higher, as well as its diversity (or percentage of foreign-born residents).

Prosperity: This category includes the GDP per capita as well as the number of Global 500 corporate headquarters located within each city. While travelers typically don’t consider these things when deciding where to go, Resonance believes that a well-paid, economically secure population generates innovation and economic growth, which eventually leads to more cultural institutions, more quality restaurants, and even better airport connectivity in the long run.

Programming: This is what you’d typically call the “things to do” category, which covers the number of performing arts venues, restaurants, and nightlife experiences, as well as shopping.

Promotion: The Promotion category essentially ranks how popular each city is online. Resonance quantified this by looking at the popularity of each city in Google Trends over the last 12 months, as well as the number of Instagram hashtags, Facebook check-ins, Google searches, and TripAdvisor reviews shared online about each city.

“The Best Cities rankings are composed of experiential factors that people consider most important in choosing a city to live in and visit, as well as empirical factors that business decision-makers consider important for business or investment,” says Resonance president and CEO Chris Fair.

“The data collected for this year’s rankings provides a snapshot of the performance of these cities coming out of the pandemic,” he adds. “It explores how cities are positioning themselves for imminent reinvention and long-term resilience today and in the years ahead.”

Here’s how the United States’ best cities ranked in 2021.

New York City took first place again in 2021.

1. New York City

Highlighted rankings: Place (1), Programming (1)

Why we love it: Yet again, New York City took the top spot in Resonance’s annual rankings. However, the home to some 19 million people has been hit hard by COVID over the past 18 months. Deaths and infections rose while visitors plummeted, and an uptick in crime even saw the city slip to seventh place in the safety category. But you don’t keep a place like this down for long.

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“New York City is reawakening with infrastructure upgrades, a packed cultural calendar, world-class hotels, a new outdoor dining scene, multicultural neighborhoods to explore and many more vibrant offerings,” NYC & Company president and CEO Fred Dixon told Resonance in May. The city is back with a vengeance for 2021, with NYC Summer Restaurant Week starting July 19, a dozen big hotel openings including the Ace in Boerum Hill and the Pendry in Hudson Yards, and the lights back on Broadway from the fall.

Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to New York

Hollywood isn’t Los Angeles’s only tourism draw now.

2. Los Angeles, California

Highlighted rankings: Product (2), Promotion (2)

Why we love it: Los Angeles also took a serious health and economic hit from COVID, with some deeming it the “infection epicenter” in the dark winter months, but strict lockdowns and high vaccinations across the state have paid off; California had the lowest infection rate in the country as of mid-May. While unemployment remains too high, pushing L.A. to the bottom of Resonance’s Change in Unemployment Rate subcategory, the city is bouncing back.

Locals already knew Los Angeles’s restaurant scene was one of the best in the country, but the return of the Michelin guide to the city in 2019 gave it the recognition it deserved with six new two-star restaurants. We’ve long loved the city’s Latinx food and culture. Another new culinary experience to look out for: La Plaza Cocina on historic Olvera Street, which will be the first museum and teaching kitchen dedicated to Mexican food in the United States.

There’s plenty of other development happening. Groundbreaking on Destination Crenshaw took place in February 2020, just before lockdown started. The 1.3-mile-long outdoor museum is being built by and for L.A.’s Black community and will feature works of art by Black artists along part of the new Metro rail line that is currently being built along Crenshaw Boulevard. Plus the SoFi Stadium, the NFL’s largest, opened last fall, and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is coming in September. Oh, and they’re even making the roads around LAX more pleasant.

Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Los Angeles

Millennium Park is just one of Chicago’s many scenic outdoor spaces.

3. Chicago, Illinois

Highlighted rankings: Airport Connectivity (2), Nightlife (2)

Why we love it: Chicago’s frigid winters may hold its ranking back in the weather category, but thanks to its expansive parks and vibrant neighborhoods it still ranks highly in the Place category. Its number three Programming ranking also reveals that its restaurant and nightlife scenes are no longer second fiddle to larger metropolises like New York. Resonance ranks it third for restaurants and flags the delights of Greektown in particular; try Andros Taverna in the Logan Square neighborhood or new Papagus Taverna downtown.

Chicago’s popularity shows in its massive growth in tourism over the past decade. During Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s terms between 2011 and 2019, Resonance says the number of visitors to Chicago each year blossomed from 39 million to 58 million. While those numbers have been affected by COVID-19, we will be watching Chicago’s comeback story closely.

Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Chicago

4. San Francisco, California

Highlighted rankings: Sights & Landmarks (2), Education Attainment (3)

Why we love it: As AFAR’s original hometown, San Francisco is one of our favorite cities in the United States for obvious reasons. But when you look at the data, it earned this top spot for reasons beyond our own personal preferences. Thanks to the Bay Area’s world-renowned universities like Stanford and UC Berkeley and high concentration of Fortune 500 companies, San Francisco has one of the most educated, diverse, and prosperous populations. That said, the challenges the city’s homeless population face cannot be ignored. But city officials along with the governor and San Francisco’s destination marketing organization are looking for fixes, including adding mental health housing.

Many of the city’s plans and celebrations were put on hold due to COVID, including the Golden Gate Park’s 150th anniversary and San Francisco Pride’s 50th, and the hugely expanded Asian Art Museum closed as soon as it reopened. However, visitation is expected to bounce back to prepandemic levels by 2023.

Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to San Francisco

5. Boston, Massachusetts

Highlighted rankings: University Ranking (1), People (2)

Why we love it: Sure you know Harvard, but did you know that Boston is home to more than 75 institutions of higher learning? Because of its top University category ranking and its highly educated population, it also ranks highly in the People category. But it’s not only students who come to Boston. As the oldest large city in America, it draws millions of tourists each year to see historical landmarks along the Freedom Trail, including the USS Constitution and the King’s Chapel.

The city’s newest addition, free contemporary art spot the MassArt Art Museum, opened in early 2020, and Boston is expecting to add 5,000 hotel rooms in the next five years, many around the South Boston Waterfront area.

Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Boston

Just beyond San Diego’s skyline are miles and miles of beaches.

6. San Diego, California

Highlighted rankings: Place (3), Attractions (7)

Why we love it: With 263 days of sunshine a year and 70 miles of beaches within its city limits, San Diego ranks highly in the Place category (to nobody’s surprise). But there’s so much more to this Southern California city than good weather and gorgeous scenery. Its excellent culture and restaurant scenes surely took a hit from the COVID-19 lockdowns, but keep an eye out for reopenings—and don’t miss the Barrio Logan, San Diego’s hub of Mexican American culture where several Latinx women and other entrepreneurs have opened businesses in recent years. For families, Legoland just opened its biggest new area yet, based on the popular Lego movie franchise, and a children’s zoo is coming to the world famous San Diego Zoo.

Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to San Diego

In addition to its famous monuments, Washington, D.C.’s culinary scene has become another major tourism draw for the capital.

7. Washington, D.C.

Highlighted rankings: Educational Attainment (2), Museums (5)

Why we love it: Unsurprisingly, the nation’s capital scores well for its many free museums, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other Smithsonian institutions like the National Air and Space Museum. In addition to all of its history, there are lots of new things happening in D.C. that make it worth adding to your post-COVID list of places to go—especially if you’re interested in traveling for food. A 12,500-square-foot food hall called the Roost has opened in Capitol Hill, and don’t miss Market 7, a hub of Black-owned businesses, including a 7,000-square-foot food hall in D.C.’s Ward 7 area.

Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Washington, D.C.

Denver’s RiNo Art District is among the Colorado city’s many charms.

8. Denver, Colorado

Highlighted rankings: People (1), Airport Connectivity (4)

Why we love it: We’ve long been fans of the Colorado capital for its innovative dining scene and proximity to those glorious Rocky Mountains, but 2021 saw Denver make it into Resonance’s top 10 for the first time. Many factors contributed to the city’s rise and its magnetic appeal for people rethinking where they want to call home postpandemic: 300 days of sunshine a year, an abundance of hiking trails and outdoor spaces, and a lively street art scene. Did we mention that weed is legal here, too?

The coming year will see a new permanent installation from Meow Wolf, the collective behind Santa Fe’s immersive art exhibit the House of Eternal Return, as well as an extensive renovation of the Denver Art Museum’s Martin Building. And the growing River North Art (or RiNo) District continues to pull people in for its mix of restaurants, galleries, and working studios.

Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Denver

Roosevelt Row’s First Friday in downtown Phoenix

9. Phoenix, Arizona

Highlighted rankings: Weather (6), Change in Civilian Labor Force (11)

Why we love it: Another addition to the Resonance top 10 that also boasts 300 days of sunshine a year, this desert hot spot serves up some of the country’s best Mexican food alongside a healthy serving of great galleries, museums, and shopping.

The walkable Roosevelt Row Arts District, a hub of galleries, studios, and bars, contributes to Phoenix’s position in the Place category, and postlockdown life here looks lively. The Pemberton PHX, a design-focused community hub, opened earlier this year; 10 hotels are set to open their doors soon, including the boutique AC Hotel Downtown, along with numerous new restaurants focusing on Latin flavors.

Plan your next trip with AFAR’s Guide to Arizona

10. San Jose, California

Highlighted rankings: Educational Attainment (1), Prosperity (3)

Why we love it: San Jose probably isn’t on many leisure travelers’ must-visit lists. But the capital of Silicon Valley continues to climb these rankings because its residents are some of the most diverse and highly educated people in the country. They are also some of the best paid because of all the top tech headquarters based there.

While San Jose ranks much lower for product and programming, the wealth of its residents is likely to attract more top-notch cultural institutions and restaurants sooner than later. For now, travelers can check out places like History Park, which reopened to the public last summer. This open-air museum features local architecture that has been saved and relocated over the past few centuries, including a 140-year-old Chinese temple, an entire hotel, and a working trolley line.

The rest of the top 20 cities in the United States are:

11. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

12. Dallas, Texas

13. Atlanta, Georgia

14. Seattle, Washington

15. Austin, Texas

16. Las Vegas, Nevada

17. Houston, Texas

18. Columbus, Ohio

19. Boise, Idaho

20. Tucson, Arizona

To see the full list of the 100 best cities in the United States, visit bestcities.org.

This article was originally published on June 22, 2020, and was updated on July 28, 2021, to reflect new rankings.

>> Next: The World’s 25 Best Cities of 2020

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