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The Best Cities in North America (PHOTOS)

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To fully appreciate a historic city like Charleston, you shouldn't speed through it in car. In fact, even taking a horse-drawn buggy might be rushing it.

"Those carriage tours are popular, but the city is so walkable that it's best experienced on foot," says Caroline Eubanks, an Atlantan whose travel blog focuses on the South. "You see much more interesting things this way--like narrow alleys with street art, plaques denoting historic homes, and the stamps on each brick that tell where they're from."

Indeed, sometimes the best way to embrace a city is to take it slow, and that's one reason Travel+Leisure readers love South Carolina's Holy City, ranking it among their favorite urban centers in North America. As part of the magazine's World's Best survey, Travel + Leisure readers voted on their favorite airports, cruise lines, islands, and hotels--and also ranked the world's greatest cities for features such as arts, shopping, dining, and romantic ambience.

Like Charleston, many of the top 20 winners in North America have a deep sense of history, while still cultivating modern features like craft breweries, coffee houses, and ever-evolving music scenes. But some regional stereotypes still persist in the survey: one winning category, friendliness, gave certain Southern cities in the U.S. a distinct advantage, thanks to their lilting accents and free refills on iced tea.

But one local from a Midwestern contender urges travelers to see past her hometown's own accent and bluster. "Based on our harsh winters and our track record with the Cubs, you'd think we'd be very bitter," says Chicago resident and independent-travel podcast co-host Kathy Pulkrabek. "But we're the first people to help wayward tourists on the street, or strike up a conversation in a bar." To start up your own chat in the Windy City, she adds, "just remember the three Bs: Bulls, Bears, and Blackhawks."

--By Katrina Brown Hunt

No. 7 Quebec City, Canada
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Readers raved about this 400-year-old Canadian city, its palpably French personality, and unique sights, like Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That old-world character extends to the prime hotel in the city, the palatial Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, which was built in the late 19th century to look like a Renaissance building. For a contemporary taste of what some call Canada's national dish, poutine, take the short walk from the hotel to the burger-and-shake joint Le Chic Shack; its French-fry-based masterpieces come topped with red-ale braised beef and horseradish aioli or wild-mushroom ragout and shallots.

Photo: Michel Aubry photo
No. 6 San Francisco, California, U.S.
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The Bay Area metropolis made the list for its dining, culture, and romance: you can combine all three when you're sharing drinks and the views from the classic city bar Top of the Mark, or picking up cutting-edge, bean-to-bar goodies from Dandelion Chocolate. Proving that they're not all softies, the tech town also won for having the No. 1 business hotel in the country. The sleekly modern St. Regis San Francisco, whose meeting spaces include a huge terrace overlooking the soon-to-reopen SFMoMA, also offers the perfect way to celebrate the end of the work week: the "sabering" of a bottle of champagne, done on Thursday through Saturday evenings in the lobby.

Photo: iStockphoto
No. 5 Santa Fe, New Mexico, U.S.
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Readers love how the Southwestern culture infuses everything in Santa Fe, from the centuries-old architecture to those ever-roasting chiles (which even find their way into the bonbons at Kakawa Chocolate House). Indeed, Santa Fe's distinctive dining is quite a draw, from the authentic New Mexican cuisine at Maria's, to newcomers like Georgia (next door to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum), where your steak frites comes with a side of garlic-fried yucca. To immerse yourself in the ambience, stay across from the Palace of the Governors at Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, with its sandstone walls, kiva fireplaces, and hand-woven rugs; readers voted it their favorite hotel in the whole state.

Photo: Roy Niswanger
No. 4 Savannah, Georgia, U.S.
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The oldest city in Georgia made the top 10 for its historic landmarks—like Bonaventure Cemetery and the Mercer Williams House Museum, which figure prominently in the city's most-widely-associated book and movie, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. But part of the local culture in Savannah also comes from its affable locals and the lively nightlife (open containers can count as a legitimate fashion accessory). Spend happy hour at the elegant rooftop bar Perch, overlooking Forsyth Park; the cocktail menu includes such sturdy options as the Port side Gibson, with vodka, ruby port and onion juice.

Photo: Alamy Stock Photo
No. 3 Mexico City, Mexico
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The Mexican capital won an impressive number of categories among Latin-American cities: culture, shopping, and cuisine. And while plenty of readers come here, no doubt, to visit the Zócalo, or Plaza de la Constitución (it gets about 85 million visitors per year), a few restaurants are destinations in themselves. One is Pujol, featuring chef Enrique Olvera's forward-looking takes on authentic cuisine, like a suckling-pig taco with chickpea puree, coriander, and red jalapeño. Voters commented on the city's New York City-style fast pace, but they also raved about its parks. One not to miss: the ancient, waterfall-filled Chapultepec Park, which provided a relaxing green space for the ancient Aztecs.

Photo: © dbimages / Alamy Stock Photo
No. 2 New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
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The Crescent City charmed readers with a one-two punch (and a spiked punch at that): it ranked at No. 2 in the nation for dining, and at No. 1 in the world for nightlife. No doubt readers loved iconic dining experiences like the oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's or the beignets at Café du Monde, but the city's biggest fans also know how to wander off the tourist grid for a fun evening—whether that means the free jazz clubs along Frenchmen Street or the new People's Health New Orleans Jazz Market in Central City. At the latter's Bolden Bar, you'll find free music Thursday through Saturday nights and craft cocktails like the Jelly Roll Morton (with Sazerac rye, bitters, blackberry mash, and lemon).

Photo: Getty Images
No. 1 Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.
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Urbane but quaint: This South Carolina city won the survey by balancing sophisticated tastes with small-town charm. Charleston is home to four out of the survey's top five small-city hotels in the U.S.: these boutique hotels tend to be rehabbed mansions, like the former cotton-baron home Wentworth Mansion, or the antiques-filled Planter's Inn, which dates back to 1844. Planter's Inn is also home to one of the best low-county restaurants in the city: Peninsula Grill, where you can start with oyster stew and wild-mushroom grits and finish with its signature coconut cake. Not only did these hospitable South Carolinians rank highly for their well-crafted local cuisine, but they also landed near the top of the survey for likeability.

Photo: Courtesy of BLU

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