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In all our ambition and industriousness, Americans have found some interesting ways to make a dollar. Take a stroll through any of the country’s bustling downtown metropolises and you’re bound to find someone dancing, singing, fiddling, acting, magic-wielding, fire breathing, or sword swallowing their way to stardom (or a livable wage). If you’re the type of person who stops to appreciate a one-man band or a lively dance troupe, check out these 10 best U.S. cities with the craziest street performers.
New Orleans, LA
If this were an international list of the best cities for street performers around the world, New Orleans would compete for the top spot. When it comes to the U.S., it’s a no-brainer. Music and talent in New Orleans is such a dominant force that it can’t be restrained to concert halls and music venues. Head to the heart of the French Quarter to spots like Jackson Square and Royal street to be blown away by bands steeped in the rich jazz, blues, and marching band traditions of New Orleans.
New York City, NY
Busking and the New York City subway systems have gone hand-in-hand for decades. If you’re looking to find exceptional street performers and busking musicians, head to the Big Apple, but stay underground. The metro in New York City is home to both some of the country’s most experienced, well-seasoned performers and it’s most ambitious, bright-eyed amateurs.
The best spots are around Union Square, Grand Central, Times Square, and Columbus Circle, but we also recommend heading to the smaller train stops. Above ground, Central Park is your best bet for street performers. Here’s your New York City 48-Hour Itinerary to help with the rest of your trip planning.
San Francisco, CA
San Francisco has long been the crown jewel of the American hippie movement — and with hippies, come street performers. For decades people have flocked to the neighborhoods of Haight and Ashbury, Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, and Ghiradelli Square to showcase their talents. Today, the busking scene is still alive and well.
Street performers in San Francisco are quirky, inventive, and far from your average run-of-the-mill singer-songwriter. Norbert Yancey is the famous “rhyme guy” that has been dishing out on-the-fly verses for over 40 years, while David Johnson, “the bushman” (our personal favorite), simply dresses up like a bush and jumps out to scare people. You can do your best to anticipate the bushman, but it never works. The bushman always wins.
For country music fans in particular, Nashville is a place worthy of pilgrimage. After once being home to some of the genre’s greats like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, the city held its ground as one of the most important musical capitals in the country. As such, this tradition is easily seen in the streets. Head to Lower Broadway along what’s known as the Honky Tonk Highway to watch performers earn their keep outside storied saloons, bars, and juke joints.
Back in 1974, a singer-songwriter performed a protest piece for the city council of Seattle which resulted in the city lifting its ban on street performers. Since then, the area around Pike Place Market has flourished into one of the most sought-after destinations for buskers and travelers alike. Even if the weather isn’t ideal, Seattle is a place where you can find an afternoon of entertainment in streetside singers, dancers, virtuoso spoon players, and anything else you could imagine.
The university town of Boulder, Colorado is home to a European-style walking mall in downtown that has some of the most eyebrow-raising performers in the country. From fire breathers to contortionists, sword jugglers, unicyclists, and the Zip Code Guy (a guy that guesses your zip code), performers here have very niche talents with the occasional raspy-voiced folk singer sprinkled into the mix.
Venice Beach, CA
Los Angeles’ Venice Beach is a place where grimy skaters bud up against muscly gym rats, artsy hipsters, and 60s-era hippies — and it’s astounding to see all of these cultures in one place. Naturally, there’s a fair amount of street performers. Walk the boardwalk along the sand and pull over to see incredible dance crews, beatboxers, skateboarding dogs, and silver robotic men. For these reasons, Venice easily makes our list of the Best Beaches in Los Angeles.
A city that pays its buskers a living wage easily deserves a spot on the list. That’s’ right — Austin, Texas, the place sometimes dubbed the “live music capital of the world” — recently passed a pilot program that provides buskers a living wage. In Austin, you can find everything from insanely-talented fiddlers and banjo players to magicians and performers that bend kitchen pots and pans in half with their bare hands.
Pro tip: you’ve already heard of pub crawls, but what about live music crawls? Austin has an awesome Live Music Crawl dthat leads you around historic venues and provides some great background stories and live music along the way.
Las Vegas, NV
Las Vegas street performers are an interesting bunch. In the City of Sin, it seems like everything goes. Regulars of the Las Vegas street performance scene include a 77-year-old man in a skimpy slingshot leotard, a 265-pound man in a bikini with fake eyelashes who poses for photos, and other performers (a term used somewhat loosely). Las Vegas is more of a racy, exhibitionist show that makes crowds equally impressed and uncomfortable. Regardless, it’s certainly worthy of a visit.
Oregon’s largest city is home to a folksy street performance scene that is sure to impress all types of travelers. In the mid-1990s the city created a “Street Musicians Agreement” which gave everyone in the local community a right to perform within designated areas. One of the city’s standout events of the year is the Portland All-Star Buskers Concert where performers take to real stages throughout the city to put their talents on display.