Look! America's best cities for people-watching

Image: Dancing and costumes in French Quarter, Mardi Gras 2010, New Orleans, Louisiana
Mardi Gras may be the Super Bowl of people-watching, but folks in the Crescent City offer a year-round visual parade for gawkers.Philip Scalia / Alamy
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For many travelers, people-watching is the best entertainment money can’t buy, and one of the easiest ways to get a feel for a city.

Brooklynite Alisha Miranda says she likes to go sit in Manhattan’s Union Square “and just take in the crazy around me.” The freelance writer adds, “I love watching couples walking by, skateboarders, the ice cream trucks parked on the corner, and the man doing flips shirtless as people fork over spare change.”

The City That Never Sleeps, no surprise, came in near the top of the people-watching category in the 2011 edition of America’s Favorite Cities (AFC). The annual survey asks Travel + Leisure readers to rank 35 cities in 54 categories — ranging from hotels and restaurants to the general vibe of the places, such as how clean they are, how safe they feel — and how fun it is to “take in the crazy.”

Which city could possibly beat out New York in this category? When we looked at the top 20, we found that the best people-watching cities tend to have good weather and lots of room to walk around — after all, it’s harder to notice how fascinating locals are when they’re holed up in their cars.

But does ranking near the “top” for people-watching mean that a city is filled with attractive people or, frankly, odd ones? Dallas/Fort Worth, which came in last place in the category, may take some comfort in the idea that its locals are just too normal to attract many looky-loos. Savannah’s top 5 finish, on the other hand, is further proof of its southern charm: the city also landed in the top 5 for its locals’ good looks, style, and friendliness.

In the great gawkable cities, one could argue that many of the people being watched welcome it. “My favorite thing about people-watching in NYC is that flat-out staring is kind of accepted,” says media strategist Erin Scottberg. “It’s like the people you’re staring at — whether they’re glamorous, crazy, funky, or totally out there — are proud that they’ve commanded your attention.”