Image: New Orleans
Both tourists and Mother Nature can be hard on New Orleans, which Travel + Leisure readers voted the dirtiest in America. But voters also ranked the Crescent City first for its nightlife and people-watching.
updated 6/20/2011 8:28:34 AM ET 2011-06-20T12:28:34

How do you define a city’s soul? For a lot of travelers, it’s in the dirt.

Atlanta ad exec Patrick Scullin, for instance, loves Baltimore — but not because it’s particularly pristine. “Yes, there’s litter, smokers and graffiti,” he says, “but that’s just life going on. The air sometimes offends, but a cool breeze off the harbor can ease all worries. It’s a gem of a city.”

Slideshow: America's dirtiest cities

While such sentiments don’t appear in tourist brochures, that glorious grit has landed Baltimore in the Top 10 dirtiest cities, as chosen by Travel + Leisure readers in the annual America’s Favorite Cities survey. Of course, visitors gauge “dirty” in a variety of ways: litter, air pollution, even the taste of local tap water.

This year’s American State Litter Scorecard, published by advocacy group the American Society for Public Administration, put both Nevada and Louisiana in the bottom five — echoing the assessment of T+L readers who ranked Las Vegas and New Orleans among America’s dirtiest cities.

Likewise, the American Lung Association releases an annual State of the Air report, listing cities with the least (and most) pollution. Not surprisingly, Los Angeles fared poorly again this year — but so did Phoenix, which T+L readers actually ranked among the top 15 “cleanest.”

It just goes to show that for casual visitors, passing judgment on a city’s dirt factor is pretty subjective — and may even have a lot to do with a general vibe. Many of the cities that ranked poorly in the AFC survey also tanked when it came to environmental awareness, nice public parks or pedestrian-friendly streets.

On the bright side, those same dirty cities also offer a lot of, well, atmosphere. Memphis, Las Vegas and Miami ranked highly for having great bar scenes, live music or quirky people-watching.

So while no one would dissuade a city from doing some renovations or stepping up its recycling, there is something to be said for a little disheveled charm. “I love New York City because it’s not pristine,” says Kaamna Bhojwani-Dhawan, founder of family travel site MomAboard. “It’s a city that has never shunned a chance to fully experience life — and it has the scars to prove it.”

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