Image: New York City
Kelly Kollar
After the big ball in Times Square has dropped, you'll find fewer crowds at Broadway shows, inside those great museums, and in line for a slice of that great pizza.
updated 1/13/2011 12:51:17 PM ET 2011-01-13T17:51:17

Some people travel during the winter to play in the snow, others to bask in the sun — and some, perhaps, just to breathe in a great smell.

New York public relations exec Bruce Stoff once stayed an entire winter in Santa Fe, and remembers most the smell of piñon, the predominant firewood in the area. “Every fireplace and woodstove in the city becomes an incense burner,” Stoff says. “I found the aroma just intoxicating.”

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Maybe it was that scent that helped the New Mexico city stay in the Top 10 for winter travel in this year’s Travel + Leisure America’s Favorite Cities survey. Travel + Leisure readers were asked to rank 35 great American cities in 54 categories, including all-in-one resorts, romantic potential, or how easy it is to get around town. This year, seven new cities entered the survey — spanning from Anchorage to Savannah — and three of them landed in the top five for winter travel.

When we looked at the overall rankings, a few things were not surprising: extra-cold or winter-gray cities such as Anchorage, Minneapolis, and Seattle fell into the bottom five out of the 35.

But when we looked at winter’s top 20 cities, we didn’t always find big escapes from the cold. Granted, sunny island cities did pretty well: Honolulu came in second place, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, placed third.

But Florida — whose state bird could be the poolside-lounger-seeking snowbird — had two disappointing results this year. Orlando, which was No. 1 for winter trips in the 2009 survey, fell to a ho-hum No. 12 this year, while Miami came in at No. 15. Meanwhile, America’s first-place city for weather, San Diego, ranked in between, at No. 13.

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The message? While warm temps are great, AFC readers will put up with some rain or a few chilly breezes as long as there are fun things to do. New Orleans (No. 7), for instance, has a rather famous annual event that tends to happen in late February or early March, which may give the rest of winter a certain Mardi Gras vibe.

Meanwhile, cities with excellent indoor culture — museums, theater, classical music — helped AFC voters overlook the occasional winter storm or dreary day. In Santa Fe (No. 8), besides all that great firewood, you have access to skiing a half hour outside the city, and great art and shopping in town. “It’s also the best value time of year to go there,” says John Clifford, president of agency International Travel Management. That’s good news, since AFC voters didn’t consider Santa Fe a bargain most of the time.

And in other cities, winter may be the season where you finally get a great place to yourself. “In Charleston during winter, you can walk or ride around the gorgeous Charleston Battery district with few other tourists,” says local public relations exec Beth Cleveland. “You can get restaurant reservations downtown any night of the week,” she adds, “and you can walk on the beach year-round.” So what if it’s too chilly to take a dip? “It’s still warmer than wherever you’re likely traveling from.”

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation


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