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New Orleans vs. Charleston: The Race for the Top

If only Charleston, South Carolina had an NFL team, we could settle this at the scrimmage line; instead, we have to rely on matters of the heart, and that score is hard to tabulate.

Each year Travel & Leisure magazine publishes lists of “the best” in several categories, including hotels and towns. One of the most interesting travel lists is that of the “Top 15 Cities in the USA.” Such rankings are especially important in a year such as this, when travel prices are high and the airlines are providing little encouragement for flying away. This is a good time to stay near home.

Using its readers (who presumably like to travel) as its survey base, here are the magazine’s Top Two cities for 2022:

  1. Charleston
  2. New Orleans

This has happened before, with these two finishing at or near the top, most often with Charleston as number one.

For New Orleans, finishing second is not a disgrace considering the competition – which includes New York, Santa Fe, Savannah, Asheville and other popular places. Nevertheless, there is a primal urge to be number one, so I have wondered, what is it about Charleston that puts it on top?

Last November I actually spent a long weekend in Charleston to see for myself. The place is a marvel of historic architecture and is known for its good food. (More on that later.)

Here is what Travel & Leisure said:

There's a reason people keep going back to Charleston: the city expresses the perfect balance of Southern charm, knockout food and drinks, and walkability. Many readers also found the city's history to be a draw. Others appreciated the simple pleasures of strolling the side streets of downtown.

All of the above can also be said about New Orleans, except that here visitors, and locals, might be more apprehensive about strolling some of the side streets.

Food is an important criterium in evaluating all of the world’s great cities and Charleston gets high marks for what is referred to as “low country cuisine,” so called for the cooking styles that originated from the pots and pans of the native cultures along the nearby Atlantic Coast.

One such dish is shrimp and grits. That item now appears on New Orleans menus but it hasn’t always, only in the last 20 years or so. I have tried the local versions, including at some of the finest restaurants, and have never been sure what the big deal is. The grits I have found to be bland not to be outdone by the shrimp. Only a gob of butter and some shakes of hot sauces provide redemption.

By comparison, while eating at one of the finer Charleston restaurants, actually called “Slightly North of Broad” and self-described as a “Lowcountry bistro that brings together an abundance of local ingredients and thoughtful, expert presentation,” I tried the native shrimp and grits. It was a completely different, and far more robust, dish than the New Orleans style. Here is how the menu describes the ingredients including locally made grits: “house sausage, country ham, tomatoes, green onions and, garlic.”

Now I see what the big deal is. The Charleston version is a flavor explosion.

There are lots of comparisons between the two cities, but some big difference, too. Both are known for historic preservation and native food. They have Charleston Harbor; we have the big bend in the Mississippi River. They have Fort Sumpter where the Civil War started; we have the Cabildo where the sale of the Louisiana territory to the United States was made official. We have the Creole legacy, which combines several cultures; they have a Gullah legacy, which best preserves the African roots. We have the continent’s biggest Carnival celebration; they have a St. Patrick’s Day parade. We have two big league pro teams and Broadway road shows. They have… well, shrimp and grits.

There is a geographic bonus that Charleston has in which New Orleans cannot compete. They have the ocean. Beaches are only 15 miles away. We are blessed with the Gulf of Mexico, but it is 90 miles away, and don’t look for a beach.

Charleston’s proximity to the Atlantic makes it a total package combining a colorful Colonial old town and a seashore. (Imagine a Garden District by the Sea.) There is something for all visitors including those who vote in travel magazine surveys.

Those of us who live in highly ranked cities are probably often surprised to see the good grades our town gets because we know the location of all the warts. Thankfully, it sometimes takes travelers to see the gems.

Here is what Travel & Leisure said about New Orleans:

While many readers raved about NOLA's dynamic food scene and quirky tours (especially those in swamps and cemeteries), others homed in on its singular atmosphere. "You feel the overpowering spiritual energy of the past and the deeply complicated history of the city," explained one voter.

“Overpowering spiritual energy.” Maybe there is more here than we ever realized.



    JULY 2022

1. Charleston, South Carolina

2. New Orleans, Louisiana

3. Santa Fe, New Mexico

4. Savannah, Georgia

5. Honolulu, Hawaii

6. New York, New York

7. Chicago, Illinois

8. Alexandria, Virginia

9. San Antonio, Texas

10. Boston, Massachusetts

11. Austin, Texas

12. Williamsburg, Virginia

13. Asheville, North Carolina

14. San Diego, California

15. Nashville, Tennessee

Have something to add to this story, or want to send a comment to Errol? Email him at errol@myneworleans.com. Note: All responses are subject to being published, as edited, in this newsletter. Please include your name and location.

SOMETHING NEW: Listen to Louisiana Insider a weekly podcast covering the people, places and culture of the state: LouisianaLife.com/LouisianaInsider, Apple Podcasts or Audible/Amazon Music.

BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.


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