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America’s best shopping districts

Yes, the economy is lurching like a drunken sailor — but ‘tis the season to shop it off. We hit King Street in Charleston, Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Canyon Road in Santa Fe, and seven more for our list of America’s 10 best shopping districts.
With its gas lights, wrought iron balconies and street musicians, New Orleans' Rue Royal scores high on atmosphere. A block from rowdy Bourbon Street, Royal channels NOLA's sophisticated side.
With its gas lights, wrought iron balconies and street musicians, New Orleans' Rue Royal scores high on atmosphere. A block from rowdy Bourbon Street, Royal channels NOLA's sophisticated side.Royal Street
/ Source: Forbes

As the economy lurches like a drunken sailor, analysts ponder the psyche of American consumers. Will we hunker down? Will we stash our cash in the mattress? There's an old adage that when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. Maybe not this time, so upscale brands are tailoring their products to reflect this latest adjustment, as more shoppers skip London and Paris in favor of markets closer to home.

"We’re in kind of a bubble because Charleston is such a popular place for tourists," says Susan Lucas, representative for Charleston’s Upper King Street Merchants Association. The stores in this South Carolina town are feeling a pinch, she admits, but "the high-end stores are offering more of a mix of things, so everybody gets to take something home.”

That’s precisely the spirit we’ve encountered in premiere shopping destinations from sea to shining sea. So get ready for some recession-defying, blues-busting retail therapy—we’re going to shop across America.

Our first stop? The Big Apple, naturally. New York City is to shopping what Paris is to romance: the definitive experience. Despite the snotty shop assistants and honking cabs, New York is an irresistible assortment of riches for shopaholics. There's Fifth Avenue and Soho for luxury shopping, the Meatpacking District for cutting-edge fashion and Nolita for up-and-coming designers. But if decadence has a headquarters, it's Madison Avenue, where perfectly accessorized Upper Eastsiders jostle with European shuttle-shoppers and Asian card-burners. If you think $5,000 is a lot to plunk down for a pair of boots, think again.

Just a few hours north, Boston stands as a beacon of European-style charm. Smaller in scale and more understated than New York, Bean Town may be a bit buttoned-up, but it has a certain Yankee panache. The stylish shops and chi-chi salons of Newbury Street offer a cornucopia of antiques, high-end apparel and designer shoes. The funkier side of Boston manifests on the Massachusetts Avenue end, where skateboarders breeze by and bohemian students hunt for hipster-wear.

Turning our compasses southward, we head to Dixie, where Charleston and New Orleans wait to seduce us. Southerners know a thing or two about shopping: Scarlett O’Hara was such a fashion-hound that she quizzed Rhett about Parisian knickers in the middle of a war. Charleston’s palmetto-lined King Street bursts with exquisite boutiques, home design stores, and rare antiques. Upper King, running from Spring Street to Calhoun Street, has emerged the city’s design district, chock-full of boho-chic home furnishings and eclectic boutiques.

New Orleans’ Royal Street, which runs through the French Quarter, is another storied destination for southern shopping. Fortunately, it was spared the brunt of Katrina’s wrath and the exquisite antique shops weren’t looted in the subsequent chaos. Shopping Rue Royal is like traveling back to a genteel era of gas lamps and cobblestones. Cars are banned during weekends and holidays, and street performers serenade you as you wander in and out of French and Spanish colonial buildings.

Way down in Miami, things are heating up on an already sizzling shopping scene. A once sparsely-populated Midtown neighborhood has reemerged as the high-energy center of Miami’s affluent art community. In the Design District, savvy shoppers find top-name design showrooms, art galleries, high-end boutiques and hip restaurants. Get here soon, while the vibe is still fresh.

Our next stop is the Midwest, where Chicago woos the worldliest of shoppers. If cutting-edge home design, luxury boutiques, fabulous jewelry and vintage treasures are your thing, the Windy City is your kind of town. Magnificent Mile, stretching along Michigan Avenue, attracts 22 million visitors a year to more than three million square feet of retail space. Flower-filled medians reflect the changing seasons, and when the season is winter, high-rise indoor malls allow you to hunt for high-end goodies without risking frostbite.

Shopping inside Caesar's Palace Forum Shops.
Las Vegas, Nevada, USA --- Shopping inside Caesar's Palace Forum Shops. --- Image by © Abraham Nowitz/CorbisAbraham Nowitz

Next we head to the Southwest, where Santa Fe shoppers get giddy from more than the altitude. Canyon Road, Santa Fe’s gallery district, is a treasure chest brimming with turquoise jewelry, rugs, pottery, textiles, leather garments, and Native American artifacts. Santa Fe is America’s second largest art market, stocked with everything from 20th-century masterpieces created in New Mexico’s famous art colonies to avant-garde creations.

A little further west is Scottsdale, Ariz., nicknamed “the Beverly Hills of the Desert.” Scottsdale gets bragging rights to the region’s largest and most luxurious shopping destination. Within the air-conditioned aisles of Scottsdale Fashion Square, fashionistas feed their hunger for haute couture at a smorgasboard of upscale stores. Barneys New York is scheduled to open in fall 2009, along with several new stores and two upscale restaurants.

As we continue westward, our sense of unreality increases, bringing us to our penultimate stop, Las Vegas. Don’t let that money you blew on the craps table get you down. Lift up your chin and strut proudly through every over-the-top hotel shopping arcade you can find. The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace is a jackpot of 160 shops and 13 restaurants. And Las Vegas' hard times should yield some bargains.

Finally, we reach the golden shores of California, where Rodeo Drive conjures shopping fantasies etched deep in our unconscious. Blame it on Julia Roberts, blazing a trail through fantastically chic boutiques in "Pretty Woman". Here, reality dissolves completely as you encounter strange plastic facelifts and shoes that cost more than your first car. Big-time stars are often seen patrolling the fabled sidewalks with their entourages, paparazzi close behind. With its Old World cobblestones and faux European street lamps, Two Rodeo Drive feels more like a movie set than an outdoor mall.