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Losing stature

In recent years, Boston has been eclipsed by up-and-coming cities as a top tourist destination

Looking for good ethnic food? Sample San Antonio. Attractive people? Head to Minneapolis. A romantic escape? Try Santa Fe.

They may not be the most obvious choices, but lately they have all out-ranked Boston.

Once deemed the most European city in America and routinely ranked as a top travel destination, Boston's place in the minds of travelers has been eclipsed by up-and-coming cities in recent years. When Travel + Leisure rated the best cities in North America earlier this year, Boston wasn't even on the list.

Condé Nast Traveler's "Reader's Choice Award" this week put Boston at No. 10, a hard fall after reigning at the top of the list with cities like New York and San Francisco during the 1990s. Now, it comes in behind cities like Charleston, S.C., Santa Fe, and Savannah, Ga.

It's not that tourists aren't coming to Boston. In fact, more come each year, with 18.8 million visiting in 2006, according to the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. But around the country, it seems that some of the luster has worn off.

"Boston's had an image problem," said Linda L. Lowry, an associate professor of tourism and hospitality at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "The Big Dig hasn't helped. . . . Hotel prices have gone up and up."

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said the city doesn't deserve the bum rap.

"This city is happening," he said. "Things are happening."

City Hall may tout that "It's all right here," but the 60,000 travelers who filled out an "America's Favorite Cities" poll released this month by CNN and Travel + Leisure apparently felt differently.

Of 25 cities, Boston was ranked 24th for weather, a mediocre 12th for nightlife, and a lukewarm 16th in a catch-all "characteristics" category.

Though Boston ranked near the top in antiques shopping, classical music, and as a destination for sports fans, it was near the bottom for affordability. The people surveyed thought Bostonians were intelligent (No. 3) but not particularly friendly (No. 21), attractive (No. 16), and stylish (No. 9).

Tourists interviewed last week didn't necessarily disagree, though several conceded that some things turned out to be different than they had imagined.

"The people here are not as fat as it is said in Europe," said Ralph Lebreton, 24, who was visiting Quincy Market last week from France.

Still, there were some familiar complaints.

"We've got a car, but we're not brave enough to drive here," said Ann Hillard of Toledo, Ohio, who was in town to see her son, a Harvard freshman.

"Trying to find a motel here that's affordable is outrageous," said Ted Alstrom, a 60-year-old leaf peeper from Belfair, Wash., who decided to stop off in the city for a few days. "I can't find anything for under $300."

It wasn't always this way. Travelers once considered Boston a peer of Madrid and New York. In 1991, Condé Nast Traveler rated Boston the third-best city in America. A few years later, Boston was one of the 20 best cities in the world according to Travel + Leisure.

But as smaller cities like Charleston and Savannah started capitalizing on their assets and traditional tourist destinations like Las Vegas and Fort Lauderdale started rebranding themselves, Boston suddenly found itself with some steep competition.

"These days the world is a very small place." Lowry said. "Everyone's marketing themselves, people can learn about other destinations very quickly. Boston can't just say, 'We're old and historic."'

Which is pretty much what Boston has done.

"No one's going to pick up and move the Old North Church to South Beach," said Pat Moscaritolo, chief executive of the Greater Boston Visitors and Convention Bureau. "We've got great museums, wonderful cultural attractions. You can't change that."

Traffic may be awful, but that's why they call Boston "America's Walking City," Moscaritolo said. And good restaurants abound, even if it's nearly impossible to find a bite to eat after a Celtics game.

"The thing I like about Boston is its restaurants," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who favors Strega Ristorante in the North End and Abe & Louie's on Boylston Street. "New York and Chicago are one and two [for restaurants]. Then you got Boston, L.A. L.A.'s a great restaurant town, but you have to drive so far to get there. I walk 90 percent of the time."

And those $300-a-night hotel rooms? They have their upside: The 19 million people who visited here last year spent nearly $17.3 billion in the city.

Marc J. Spears of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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