By creating Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the United States established a tradition of recognizing and protecting natural wonders. To this day, our national parks, monuments, historic sites, wildlife preserves, recreation areas, and wilderness areas remain a rich inheritance shared by all Americans.
But as a country we have not shown the same kind of concern for the places most of us spend time day-to-day. The soul of America is found not just in purple mountain’s majesty, but also corner coffee shops, neighborhood playgrounds, and Main Streets. Our local hangouts are too often neglected, growing shabby and unappealing, as so much of America’s resources are funneled into the private pursuits of home and business. But now, as a new sense of unity sweeps through the land, it’s time to recognize the value of all the places where we come together as neighbors, citizens, friends. So in the spirit of celebrating what’s great about this land, we feature on the following pages a list of 60 great public places in America—an eclectic assortment of favorite hangouts from Key West to Seattle.
In drafting the list, we drew upon the work of the Project for Public Spaces, a national advocacy group, and Gianni Longo’s book A Guide to Great American Public Places, as well as suggestions from friends around the country and happy memories of our own travels. We define the idea of public place broadly here, ranging from rib joints to the Grand Canyon, art museums to Coney Island. Our only firm criterion was that these places must be open to everyone at no more than a modest cost.
Vibrant downtown district that has been revitalized but not gussied-up beyond all recognition.
Threatened baseball shrine that blends wonderfully into the surrounding neighborhood.
Not only the setting of children’s classic Make Way for Ducklings, but also a well-used front yard for thousands of nearby urban dwellers.
Bustling small-town Main Street with an alternative twist.
Bridge of Flowers,
Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts
Abandoned trolley bridge decorated with flowers and art by local civic groups every year since 1928.
New York City
The heart of the heart of NYC.
New York City
Beaches and amusement parks that draw 50 million fun seekers each year.
92nd St Y,
New York City
A branch of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association that reigns as one of the city’s most important cultural centers with lectures, classes, and arts events.
Riverside Skate Park,
New York City
Skateboard center built and designed by neighborhood kids.
The Great American Street worth strolling the whole length, but especially from 112th Street to Columbus Circle.
Harlem, New York City
Black America’s Broadway, alive with musicians, orators, and street vendors.
Ithaca, New York
Lakeside bazaar where the whole town congregates.
Buffalo, New York
Indoor emporium of fruits, vegetables, sausage, pastry, and ethnic treats.
Georgia to Maine
Two thousand miles of scenic hiking.
Urbane promenade lined by sidewalk cafés, bookstores, funky boutiques, theaters, and other curiosities.
Magnificent movie palace that has hosted world premieres of John Waters and Barry Levinson films, public events featuring the likes of Muhammed Ali and Johnny Depp, and music concerts.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial,
Public monument offering Americans an outlet for their complicated emotions about a wrenching war.
University of Virginia campus,Charlottesville
Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece, designed to maximize opportunities for informal educational encounters between students and professors.
Diggs Town,Norfolk, Virginia
Dangerous housing project transformed into a vital low-income neighborhood thanks to architectural redesign directed by the residents.
Historical Districts,Charleston, South Carolina
Architectural treasure imbued with the leisurely mood of the past without feeling like a museum.
Squares of Savannah,Georgia
Inspired feat of city planning, with squares every few blocks making this a gracious and green city.
Miami BeachAmerica’s equivalent of Barcelona’s rambla, a stretch of cafés, galleries, shops, and theaters that teems with throngs of happy walkers.
Festival each evening in Mallory Square to celebrate the final rays of the day.
Historic Center,Ponce, Puerto Rico
Once-dilapidated port city whose revitalization and Latin-accented street life holds lessons for neighbors to the north.
Dreamland barbeque,near Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Nothing fancy—just a shed-like building with a pot-bellied stove, beer signs, great ribs, and a happily finger-licking interracial crowd of diners.
MemphisElvis’s home, a historical shrine as dear to the hearts of Americans as Independence Hall or Gettysburg.
The French Quarter,New Orleans
The best place in America to lose sight of our Puritan heritage.
Mulate’s,Breaux Bridge, Louisiana
Cajun dance hall where you see everyone from 7 to 77 doing the two-step.
Riverwalk,San Antonio, Texas
A café-lined path built by the WPA along the San Antonio River.
Barton Springs,Austin, Texas
Spring-fed swimming hole beloved by Austinites of all social classes, racial hues, and philosophical persuasions.
Staples Street Station,Corpus Christi, Texas
One of the world’s finest bus stops, giving passengers of 14ngers of different routes a convenient and pleasurable downtown plaza to enjoy while waiting for a ride home.
The MidwestMount Adams neighborhood,Cincinnati
Lively, pedestrian-friendly urban village perched on a hill overlooking downtown.
Courthouse Square,Sidney, Ohio
Classic small-town business district with a Louis Sullivan bank.
Indiana Dunes,on Lake Michigan
National Lakeshore Recreation Area with beaches and unique ecosystem.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Not only world-class collections, but also front steps perfect for soaking up sun and watching the world go by on Michigan Avenue.
Extensive urban transit system connecting the whole city with ribbons of elevated train tracks.
IllinoisEverything you’d want in a suburb: racially integrated, walkable, prosperous, a vital downtown, good transit, and a character all its own.
University of Wisconsin–MadisonMemorial Union
Student hangout with good ice cream and a great outdoor beer garden.
Elroy-Sparta Bicycle Trail,Wisconsin
One of the first and foremost rails-to-trails projects.
Chain of Lakes,Minneapolis
Four lakes that serve as an aquatic town square, bringing people together to walk, swim, canoe, ice skate, and picnic.
May Day Parade and Festival,Minneapolis
Part pagan festival, part political march that enlivens inner-city neighborhoods.
Stone Arch Bridge,Minneapolis
1889 railroad bridge that curves elegantly across the Mississippi above St. Anthony Falls, now beloved by bicyclists and pedestrians.
Iowa State Fair,Des Moines
Meeting place for all Iowans.
Nebraska State Capitol,Lincoln
Art Deco tower that attracts proud visitors from across the state.
Country Club Plaza shopping center,Kansas City
1920s version of a shopping mall that accommodates autos without sacrificing street life.
International Peace Garden,North Dakota–Manitoba border
Symbol of hope—created out of flowers, shrubs, and trees—that humanity can settle its differences without bloodshed.
The WestPearl Street Mall,
Lively downtown pedestrian mall filled with people of all ages.
ArizonaSaved from a dam in the 1960s, this wonder incites awe in all who visit.
A multistory adobe town inhabited by Taos Indians since the 1500s.
Jewel of a city park with the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
Los Angeles Central Public LibraryArt Deco gem barely saved from the wrecking ball, now a civic focal point in a city more famous for private pleasures than for public ones.
City Lights Books,
Literary landmark that serves as both a neighborhood hangout and a magnet for Beat pilgrims from around the world.
A place of peace in the midst of a buzzing big city.
Marin County, California
Just across Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, a cathedral of redwoods.
First home of the well-known Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a green passageway leading out from the center of town in the direction of Mount Ashland.
Timeless place of peace and reflection.
Pioneer Courthouse Square,
Once a parking garage, now a bustling town square ranking with the best of Europe.
Pike Place Market,
Before Pearl Jam, before Microsoft, this sealed Seattle’s status as a great city.
Where everybody knows your name—and how you like your eggs cooked.
Kincaid Park Trails,
Miles of hiking, skiing, and ocean views just outside Anchorage.