Once upon a time, weirdness wasn’t generally associated with cities, at least not until a Texas bookstore owner printed 5,000 “Keep Austin Weird” bumper stickers to fend off an incoming Barnes & Noble. Not only did the gimmick work, it quickly spread to other U.S. cities, with many adapting some version of the slogan to suit their individual needs.
Now scores of U.S. metros proudly trade on their quirks, which can signify everything from underground music or arts, a creative rebirth, eclectic attractions or just a fiercely independent streak. One midwestern city proudly calls itself “north of normal.” Another plays the quirk card to help overcome its previously roughshod image. (Apparently, its working, because one U.K. paper just called this place America’s coolest East Coast city). On the West Coast, one Bay Area town has emerged as California’s most oddball city. (Spoiler alert: It’s not San Francisco).
Regardless, ranking weirdness is an art, not a science, despite recent efforts to quantify quirkiness with data. Read on for our picks of America’s 10 weirdest cities, and find out what makes them great!
10. Fargo, ND
Fargo is weird without even trying, which is probably why this “slightly off-center” midwestern town has inspired so many TV shows and movies. The city of 120,000 residents prides itself on being “north of normal,” with a pioneering prairie spirit that’s given way to a thriving arts, food and music scene.
Which U.S. city bets that being weird will help foster local business?
9. Louisville, KY
The good folks of Louisville, Kentucky, would like you to know they’re much more than just whisky, horse racing and baseball. Kentucky’s 4th largest city adopted their version of the “keep it weird” moniker in 2005, which quickly spread to bumper stickers, signs, and buildings around town.
Of course, Churchill Downs remains a huge draw, and the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is open seven days a week. But the Louisville Independent Business Alliance, or LIBA, also hopes the “Keep it Weird” slogan will encourage residents to spend their hard-earned dollars in area restaurants, breweries, bookshops and boutiques, in turn bringing on a local economic boom.
Which U.S. city counts a high proportion of oddball attractions?
8. New York City, NY
New York City used to reign supreme among America’s weirdest cities, but now the quirkiest spots have moved out to Brooklyn. Regardless, the area still offer plenty of eccentricity, including abandoned subway tours, mental institutions-turned tourist attractions, and museums devoted both to paranormal activities and Broadway flops.
One of NYC’s most enduring oddities is the circus sideshow museum on Coney Island, which relishes its long history of circus freaks, mermaid parades, hot dog-eating competitions and other oddball attractions as one of the country’s original amusement parks.
Which U.S. city is so strange it once inspired a Weird Al Yankovic song?
7. Albuquerque, NM
Long before Albuquerque became synonymous with Breaking Bad, local business owners where championing the city’s tendency to “keep it querque,” so much so that Weird Al Yankovic once composed an 11-minute ballad inspired by the desert city.
Of course, Albuquerque’s enviable location along Route 66 can’t hurt, either, today drawing an even more diverse — read: weirder — mix of road trippers, nature lovers, and pop culture tourists eager to try “blue sky” donuts and scout Breaking Bad film locations in a beat-up RV.
Which U.S. city hopes eccentricity will help overcome its earlier reputation for roughness?
6. Baltimore, MD
Baltimore is trying hard to move away from its formerly rough image, which was personified by shows like The Wire, with a new branding campaign called Quirky Baltimore. The effort seeks to display Baltimore’s quirky, creative side, which includes a wealth of art galleries, film festivals, wacky parades, and some unorthodox museums, including one showcasing George Washington’s dentures.
Of these, the American Visionary Art Museum is a real winner. Imaginative, eclectic and interactive exhibits include an eight-foot “Cosmic Galaxy Egg,” a traveling mosaic school bus and outdoor movies played in the shadow of a giant golden hand. In May, the museum also hosts an Annual Kinetic Sculpture Race, which includes an amphibious race and obstacle course inviting any human-powered artworks, including AVAM’s trademark pink poodle, Fifi, to participate.
Which U.S. city counts a chewed bubblegum wall among its main attractions?
5. Seattle, WA
Seattle used to be one of America’s weirdest cities, though Amazon’s growing behemoth is slowly chipping away at that characterful facade. Thankfully, a few places are proving resistant to the resulting development boom, which feels determined to replace the city’s unique landmarks with generic and over-priced condos.
These include an enormous troll beneath the Fremont Bridge, the country’s oldest continuously-operating public market, an annual solstice parade that includes naked bicyclists. There’s also a longstanding gum wall, which — despite being cleaned up in 2015 — was back with a vengeance one week later and remains one of Seattle’s top tourist attractions.
Where is the Bay Area’s weirdest city? The answer will surprise you!
4. Santa Cruz, CA
For years, San Francisco enjoyed kudos as California’s most flamboyant city, a haven for Beatniks, musicians, hippies and artists drawn to its creative flame. Unfortunately, soaring rents have driven most of those original residents away, transforming the “City by the Bay” into weekend destination for everybody working outside of Silicon Valley.
The creeping gentrification has also inspired one Bay Area town to “Keep Santa Cruz Weird,” in a page straight from Austin’s playbook. (The tagline was conceived after a local shop owner met the author of Austin’s city slogan at a conference). Decades later, Santa Cruz still proudly bucks Big Tech’s conformity with independent bookstores, outdoor dance parties, street festivals, interpretive art and everything else one associates with ’60s-era San Francisco.
Which U.S. city equates strange with supernatural?
3. New Orleans, LA
With its unique history, haunted museums, and a lengthy association with voodoo, there’s little dispute that New Orleans is a weirdly wonderful place to visit.
As such, opportunities for paranormal exploration abound. Highlights include the House of Voodoo, vampire bookshops, museums of death and haunting, and traipsing through the area’s many elegant cemeteries.
Where is America’s original capital of weird?
2. Austin, TX
Its been 20 years since local resident, Red Wassenich, inadvertently coined the ultimate marketing slogan by complimenting a local radio station — live and on-air — for helping to “keep Austin weird.”
Today, Austin still wears its quirky moniker like a badge of honor, which means even the tourist attractions are weird. Instead of the usual museums and art galleries, visitors gather to listen to music, create collective graffiti, and gather at sunset to watch huge flocks of resident bats.
Which U.S. city is so weird that it’s inspired nearby towns to become more normal?
1. Portland, OR
There’s only one U.S. city that ever comes close to beating out Austin, TX, in the eccentricity pageant, and that’s Portland, OR, though who takes first place is widely considered a toss-up.
Both cities love their music, breweries and flannel, but only one has managed to inspire some local backlash. Portland’s libertine nature is apparently such that the nearby town of Vancouver, WA, has resolved to keep it boring.