By Wilson C. ’20
The United States is a country with a relatively short history and you’d be hard-pressed to find a building more than 300 years old within the country, especially outside of the original thirteen colonies. Some cities thrive without this rich history, and some do not. America has its architectural and cultural gems, but it also has many cities which John Green would describe as “Paper Towns.” We have our Bostons, and we have our Jacksonvilles. In this article, the best and worst cities in the United States, in terms of true, palpable, genuine culture, architecture, history, and beauty will be discussed.
We’ll start with the worst.
Los Angeles: smog capital of North America (Population: 4 million)
If there’s one thing that comes to mind when Los Angeles is mentioned, it has to be that horrible traffic. Los Angeles has the worst traffic of any city in the entire world. The entire city is constantly cloaked in an impermeable coating of smog, and it’s nearly impossible to see the blue sky unless you are in Malibu or Pacific Palisades. Los Angeles has, in recent years, become unbearably hot (and they also don’t have any water). Unfortunately, it’s not a very safe city either. Crime is a big problem especially in areas like Compton and Inglewood, and forest fires continue to encroach on surrounding suburbs like Agoura Hills as a result of the drought. Los Angeles is essentially an overgrown suburb; the city doesn’t really have a true core. “Downtown” LA is a complete dump and nearly uninhabited. Most of the architecture is uninspired and suburban, and the city lacks any sort of history or historical significance. It’s basically like if you put San Jose in Southern California and made it ten times larger. The city was basically created in the 1940s and it’s difficult to find anything there that precedes the 20th century. Sure, there is some culture in LA, but what little genuine cultural experience the city offers is drowned out by the tourist traps and superficial experiences promoted by the city and its companies. The Walk of Fame is an absolute zoo overflowing with fanny-packed tourists and Hollywood is not nearly as glamorous as it seems. The theme parks are not nearly as “happy” as advertised and the same traffic seen on the roads is reflected in the lines at the parks. Unless, of course, you wish to spend an extra 1,000 on tour guides and passes which allow you to cut the lines. LA, being the second largest city in the US, has a lot to offer; it’s just that not very much of it is any good.
Las Vegas: Satan’s vacation home (Population: 640,000)
The American public is generally more aware of the fact that Las Vegas is a dump than the fact that Los Angeles is a dump, but the city remains extremely popular among unaware foreign tourists. Shockingly, it is the second-most visited US city behind New York City. These unassuming tourists expect a glamorous vacation, but they soon encounter the smoke-filled casinos and prostitute-filled streets that define this landfill of a city. The sidewalks are caked in advertisements for discreet call girls and cigarette butts. It’s unbearably hot during the day and terribly cold during the night. Las Vegas is also famous for its gambling, where you could lose all of your money in one night. The city is essentially dedicated to tourism and lacks any palpable culture. Furthermore, the city, similarly to LA, has sprung up very recently and has no meaningful architecture. The Las Vegas experience is one of smoke, misery, and losing money. The city doesn’t have much positive to offer other than the Blue Man Group and a decent hockey team. Let’s just say I’d rather spend a week in nearby Death Valley.
Houston: a true ghost town (Population: 2.3 million)
Houston is the ninth largest city by area in the United States. The city limits are quite spread out, and similarly to LA, this has the effect of making the downtown nearly empty; traffic is bad and most people who don’t live near downtown prefer to go out in their neighborhood rather than make the trek to downtown. I’ve spent one night in Houston due to a layover, and I can tell you the downtown does not have that much to see. The basketball team, the Houston Rockets, play downtown, and even though the team is pretty good, there isn’t a lot of deep-rooted fandom. I walked around a bit downtown on a Friday night, and you could hear a pin drop. There’s not a lot in terms of culture, history, or architecture that the city has to offer, unlike fellow Texan city San Antonio. Houston is the Texan San Jose. One thing that the city is famous for, however, is being the headquarters of NASA’s astronaut training facilities. Although the Space Center was perhaps more exciting during the Apollo days, it is an interesting place to visit (the only such place in the city). Be warned that it is an hour’s drive from downtown, however. If you’re going to visit Texas, there are certainly some more interesting cities you could go to. Although large, Houston doesn’t have much to offer.
Orlando: dictionary definition of a tourist trap (Population: 277,000)
Anyone who has read Paper Towns by author-turned-annoying YouTube “personality” John Green knows what Orlando is like. Anyone who has been to Disney World knows what Orlando is like. Ironically, Disney World and Disneyland are both located in their states’ respective Orange Counties, and these areas share a lot in common. If you’re familiar with Anaheim, that’s no compliment. As someone who has visited the city and read Paper Towns, I can confirm that Orlando is absolute garbage. The city is covered in uniform garden homes and condo developments and has a sleepy downtown with no charm. The architecture is unimaginative and there is no history here; the city basically popped up in the second half of the twentieth century and began its development then, especially with theme parks. The lone sports team, the Orlando Magic, is definitely nothing to write home about. To be honest, I’ve never met anyone from Orlando. I’m guessing it’s a popular retirement destination but there isn’t really a big university nearby except for the University of Central Florida and not really any industry other than tourism that would attract workers. The climate is very tropical, but I definitely underestimated how humid this city was. The climate is very unpleasant, and the moisture in the air certainly dampens one’s experience. It seems like mainly a place where people want to go but not to stay. One visit was enough for me.
Philadelphia: America’s greasiest city (Population: 1.6 million)
Philadelphia is that one person you know that looks like they haven’t showered in a year. The people of Philadelphia are proud, loud, and greasy. The city hangs its hat on their “sports culture,” cheesesteaks, colonial history, and the Rocky movie franchise. Philly sure has some rowdy sports fans, but their teams just really aren’t good at all. They’ll still yell and spit in your face that their teams are the best, though. The Flyers haven’t won anything since 1974 and the Phillies won once recently in 2008. The Eagles won their first super bowl EVER last year, causing the city to erupt, and confirming the athletic superiority that all of the close-minded fans believed in the whole time. The 76ers haven’t been successful since the turn of the century, but you’ll certainly be told to “trust the process” if you question their future. The people are like if you transplanted the ignorance of the deep south in a historic colonial city. I’ll admit, Philadelphia has some veritable history, but the way in which the present it is pretty poor. Of They have the Liberty Bell, which is somewhat underwhelming, and Independence Hall, which I have to admit, isn’t that bad. The problem is, it’s very crowded, and a bit touristy. Basically, during the tour, you sit in the hall while your entire year of 8th grade US history is recapped. It’s a cool room, but there’s really not much to see. Philadelphia isn’t a bad city; it’s just grossly overrated. Just like the people, the city is a whole lot of talk without much to back it up.
Alright, now that that’s over with, here are the best cities in the US:
New Orleans: cultural capital of the US (Population: 380,000)
The subtitle for this city may surprise you, but it’s true. Cajun culture and food is truly fascinating; a traditional, white southern society fused with African, creole, and francophone influences. New Orleans has beautiful colonial architecture, especially in the French Quarter, and unmatched jazz music. Lil Wayne is also from New Orleans, and you can’t go wrong with Lil Wayne. The city is home to famous cuisine like catfish, beignets, gumbo, and a variety of Cajun dishes. Being the only major city in the US with a measurable francophone influence, it provides a truly unique experience, and its food and culture cannot be found in any other city. New Orleans is home to the WW2 museum, which is a masterpiece, and a famously vibrant nightlife. Just ask CNN host Don Lemon, who got so wasted in New Orleans while doing New Year’s Eve coverage in 2016 that he repeatedly danced to live jazz on the bar and proposed to his married co-host 3 times on national television. New Orleans is just an incredibly fun city for all ages. The city is precariously positioned below sea level and the Mississippi River, and hurricanes and flooding are a major concern for the city. The city was levelled by Katrina in 2005, and its rebuilding citizens remain positive. However, this positivity will only take the city so far. As the Earth warms, the city is put at greater and greater risk for destruction. Visit New Orleans while you can!
Seattle: Starbucks, Microsoft, and Amazon (Population: 610,000)
I’m biased towards this city, as I spent much of my childhood here, but Seattle is one of America’s best cities. Not only is it home to a brilliant natural setting; it also has a lively downtown. Pike Place Market is as-advertised (don’t even try and go to the original Starbucks, trust me), and in recent decades the rest of the downtown area has been re-vitalized. Although the city won’t be seeing any NBA basketball in the foreseeable future, it is home to an amazing experience of a Seahawks game at CenturyLink Field and Pac-12 football. I’ll admit, the baseball team is forgettable, but Seattle is also home to one of America’s most supported and most successful soccer clubs, the Seattle Sounders. Yes, it rains a lot, but if you time your visit in the summer months, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Unfortunately, if you visit, you won’t find Derek Shepherd; however, you will find equally-handsome Jeff Bezos and his $126 billion- dollar fortune (as Gucci Mane wisely said, “money makes you handsome”). Seattle is actually home to the two richest men in the world (yes, I didn’t forget you, Bill) and is a major hub for technological innovation, second to only San Francisco in the US. Both have dedicated large amounts of their respective and equally absurd net-worths towards the city, contributing to its high quality (and cost of living). Seattle also has a sizeable Asian community and boasts impressive cuisine diversity. The city is, as previously touched on, home to the University of Washington, which has an absolutely beautiful campus, and the added 40,000 or so undergrad students adds to the excitement of the city. In coming decades, Seattle will experience many problems similar to that of San Francisco when it comes to homelessness and affordable housing and will have a great challenge on their hands. However, Seattle will remain an exciting city in an idyllic natural setting on the Puget Sound.
Nashville: young, charming southern town with a bit of spice (Population: 680,000)
Nashville is pretty much the opposite of Philadelphia; it’s a modern city filled with respectful people, located in a rural and Southern area. Nashville doesn’t have much pre-20th century history but is the capital of country music and is home to many universities such as Vanderbilt (the Harvard of the South) and Belmont (which isn’t quite as good of a school but does have an on-campus Chick-Fil-A). Although I’m not much of a country music fan, I have to admit that the music scene there is quite impressive. Nashville is also renowned for its barbeque, which I can confirm is excellent. This city is a perfect mix of southern charm and cuisine and liberal attitudes. The athletics aren’t very good, but nobody seems to care. Nashville is a young college town and a great place to have a good time. If you’ve ever seen Master of None, the weekend Nashville trip that Dev and his girlfriend take is an extremely accurate depiction of Nashville. It doesn’t have much to offer in terms of sports, architecture, or history, but it’s food and vibe are definitely world-class.
San Francisco: golden since 1776 (yes, San Francisco is actually 5 days older than the United States) (Population: 880,000
I may be a bit biased, but San Francisco is the most charming city west of the Mississippi. The city has some history with missions, but perhaps the most obvious relic in the city is the cable cars. In this city, you can find something unique about each neighborhood like the restaurants of the Mission (home of the Mission-style burrito) or the historic Fillmore music hall in the Fillmore District. Although it has its tourist traps like Pier 39 and whatever the San Francisco dungeon is, it also has its hidden gems like Twin Peaks and Cliff House (yes, you may be aware of these places, but they are not near the top of most SF attractions on tourism sites and are still high quality). San Francisco is a cultural melting pot of cultures unmatched by any city on the west coast. This produces a variety of culinary delights and a vibrant art and music scene. The city also has iconic American Landmarks such as the Golden Gate and Alcatraz, which are not overhyped in my opinion. San Francisco also provides excellent shopping opportunities in Union Square and on Market St. San Francisco has a decent sports scene; the 49ers are bad and forgotten and now play 90 minutes away from the city, and the city (technically) has no hockey, soccer, or basketball team. Don’t worry, you’ll have no problem finding obnoxious Warriors fans (and nice ones) in West Bay too. The baseball team, the Giants, have been very successful as of late and AT&T is a near-unanimous choice as the best ballpark in the world. San Francisco is also a hub of tech innovation, although many famous companies have partially moved out of the city as a result of the high cost of living. The high costs have also caused the city to have a high homeless population, and this is the main challenge that the city faces at the moment. I’m confident that the city will eventually be able to reduce the number of homeless people in the city and build affordable housing. As apathetic as this sounds, the homeless population will not affect a visitor and will not change the travel experience. San Francisco also has the 5th-worst traffic of any city in the world, but the city is fairly accessible by bike and is fairly compact and walkable, at least in the commercial areas. San Francisco is not without its negatives, but is a beautiful city bustling with culture and innovations and is one of America’s few truly world-class destinations.
Washington, D.C.: America’s European city
Washington, D.C. is one of the most historic cities in the United States. Although only truly founded following independence, it is rich with history nonetheless. Because it grew in an age during which most people got around on foot, the city had to be compact, creating a historical “core” to the city, keeping many historical landmarks within walking distance of one another. The city includes the national mall, home to world-class museums (no, not shops), iconic government buildings such as the Capitol and White House, and charming neighborhoods like Georgetown. The city is devoid of high-rises, allowing for an intimate setting throughout the city and a more neighbor-like atmosphere. The city also has beautiful seasons and is vibrant and full of young people, most of whom are attempting to get a job in politics. I firmly believe that Washington, D.C. is somewhere that, if possible, everyone should try and visit at least once. It is a hallmark to American history and hosts documents such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which are truly awe-inspiring to see. It’s a city where you could spend a week and not see everything. D.C. has so many amazing sights and so much amazing history to offer. The victorian architecture of Georgetown and the Greek Ionic and neo-classical architecture of the federal buildings offer a charming variety and an aesthetic unmatched by any other American city. DC, being the capital of the most powerful nation on Earth, is also home to rich cultural diversity which contributes to the city’s charm. I spent a brief year of my life in D.C. as a baby, and I wouldn’t mind returning. This city is one of America’s gems.
America may not be historically rich, but it still has a wealth of architectural beauty and cultural experience to share and to make any vacation interesting. Some of you may like the cities listed in the bad category or dislike the cities within the good category. That’s fair; this article was simply designed to judge a city’s worth based on culture, genuine history, food, cleanliness, and the people. It’s designed for a tourist to know whether or not they should visit this city, not whether or not someone could enjoy living there. I don’t recommend that Orlando or Vegas be your first choice to live in, though.