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Downtown: Chicago, Ill.
City’s Total Population: Approx. 2,700,000
Of the country’s big city downtowns, Chicago’s relatively compact zone in and around what’s known as “The Loop,” wins hands-down for being the most accessible, pedestrian-friendly and varied in its offerings. Within a two-mile radius, visitors and residents alike can visit some of the world’s best restaurants, lounge in a resplendently outfitted urban park, visit world-class art museums, shop their wallets dry on Chicago’s famous store-covered Magnificent Mile, examine some of the finest architecture on the planet, find boats to tour Lake Michigan, or wander around the waterfront tourist-friendly esplanade, Navy Pier.
Downtown: Portland, Ore.
City’s Total Population: 583,776
Although Portland is well known as a city that is friendly to bicyclists, it also has a walkable and attractive downtown that offers a wide variety ofcultural options and commercial options. There’s a vibrant and active arts scene, great food on both the high and low ends, the country’s best selection of locally-sourced craft beers, an attractive and popular riverside park, and Powell’s, the largest and one of the best independent bookstores in the country. And while you can, with some effort walk around much of Portland’s relatively small downtowns, its best to mike like a local and rent a bike – you’ll get around more effectively, see more of the area, and get a little exercise – all good things in the greenest of “America’s 50 Greenest Cities.”
Downtown: Burlington, Vt. City’s Total Population: 42,417
Downtown: Indianapolis, Ind.
City’s Total Population: 839,489
Sure, there are museums, such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art, a large and important cultural locus that maintains a 54,000-piece collection. And yes,the Fountain Square district boasts a growing and productive bohemian vibe that is a big part of the city’s identity – many of the city’s downtown development efforts are focused on it. And of course, there are a number of well-regarded universities within the city and its surrounding areas that help instill downtown with a young and active character. But Indianapolis packs that and more into a six square mile downtown area that “For some, downtown paints a city scene: skyscrapers and taxis, nightlife, and takeout restaurants around every corner. If that’s you, you’re in luck. Indianapolis will give you the big-city experience, minus the actual big city,” says Livability in its listing.
San Antonio, Texas
Downtown: San Antonio, Texas City’s Total Population: 1,330,000
San Antonio, Texas
For those who haven’t yet visited San Antonio, the city conjures up images of a tragic and bloody last stand at The Alamo. But for anyone who has visited, the city is more than just home to one of the most famous historical sites in the West. The San Antonio River Walk is perhaps the most beautiful part of the city, creating a verdant pathway lined with colorful café umbrellas that winds its way through downtown, offering up a bevy of shops, restaurants, and bars on the way. Tour downtown, follow the river by foot or tour it by boat, and save your visit to the Alamo for the late afternoon, when the sun is in retreat and you’ll have more to remember from your trip than just an historic and valiant defeat.
Santa Monica, Calif.
With its proximity to Los Angeles, its world-class beaches, and its mix of families, students, surfers and the very rich, Santa Monica earns its place both because of its commercial offerings, but because of its stunningly beautiful natural settings. Clustered around some of the best beachfront acreage in Southern California, with the world-renowned Santa Monica Pier as the anchor, the city fans out into a lively and diverse set of surrounding areas. “You’ve got a great six blocks or so of shopping, with a mix of local stores, boutiques and chains,” says Clampet. “And unlike most of the rest of the region, you can really walk around and get by without a car.” A varied mix of smaller but interesting museums, galleries, and a busy nightlife scene also contribute to the reasons why Santa Monica earns a place on our list.