Charleston is one year shy of a decade-long sweep for the top spot on Travel + Leisure magazine’s annual list of the best cities to visit in the country. 

The city was the only one in the U.S. to make the publication’s 2021 worldwide ranking, coming in at No. 18.

South Carolina also took the top two spots on a list of the best islands in the continental U.S. with Hilton Head and Kiawah Island. 

SC tourism has recovered well, but rising COVID cases loom over the comeback

Unlike last year, when Travel + Leisure’s rankings were rolled out amid a major downturn for tourism caused by COVID-19, the 26th annual awards are coming out after a summer season marked by recovery for many parts of the industry, particularly in places like Charleston that have been able to lean on assets like beaches and outdoor activities that have remained popular during the pandemic.

In an announcement of the ranking rollout, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jacqui Gifford, said this year’s results are “a testament to the travel industry’s resilience under enormous strain.”

Along with the top spot going to Charleston again, much of the U.S. rankings, which were posted Sept. 8, were consistent with last year’s results. Only two cities on the list weren’t on the 2020 version: Bend, Ore. and Williamsburg, Va.

The rest of the cities slightly shuffled places but stayed on the list. Savannah, Ga. went up one spot to No. 3. Santa Fe, N.M. bumped New Orleans out of second place, and New York City and Chicago switched places, landing at No. 5 and No. 6 this year, respectively. 

At nine years and counting, Charleston’s streak as Travel + Leisure’s best U.S. city is second only to its run with another major travel magazine. Last fall, the Holy City reached the 10-year mark of consecutive No. 1 city titles with Condé Nast Traveler.

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Via reader surveys, Charleston was assigned a score of 88.61 out of 100, just behind Jaipur, India (88.68) and slightly ahead of Tokyo (88.59) on the world rankings. 

Amid tumultuous year for tourism, Charleston marks decade run of No. 1 city title

Reader comments referenced in this year’s blurb for Charleston described the city as “heaven for foodies” and a “historic treasure.” A visitor who ended up moving to Charleston wrote in that the city “one of the friendliest places” they had ever been.  

Charleston is considered a “Hall of Fame” nominee since it’s been on the U.S. cities list for more than 10 years straight. 

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Kiawah Island Golf Resort ranked first on a list of the best resorts in South Carolina compiled by Travel + Leisure magazine from reader surveys. Kiawah Island itself also earned an accolade, at the No. 2 island in the continental U.S. File/Provided.

Some local lodgings got nods in the awards, like the historic John Rutledge House Inn on Broad Street, No. 12 on a list of top city hotels in the country.

The magazine also included separate lists for Charleston hotels and South Carolina resorts. Hotel Bennett, which recently was named the best luxury lodging in the country in a USA Today ranking, came right behind the John Rutledge House Inn on the city’s list. Kiawah Island Golf Resort, where the PGA Championship was hosted May, topped the resort list, followed by Montage Palmetto Bluff, a Bluffton resort which earlier this year became the state’s second Forbes Five-Star-rated hotel.

South Carolina scored its 2nd Forbes Five-Star hotel at coastal resort

Savannah’s airport, which also serves nearby Hilton Head in South Carolina, placed second on a list of the best domestic airports. Respondents were impressed, despite the terminal’s small size, according to the list, noting the friendliness of staff and the ease of parking.