The US is the largest economy in the world by gross domestic product, and is usually the most important country in the world when it comes to foreign direct investment (FDI), as both a source and destination. Its cities have their own industrial strengths, and in order – from the largest first – the 30 biggest cities in the US are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Austin, Jacksonville, Fort Worth, Columbus, Indianapolis, Charlotte, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Oklahoma City, Nashville, El Paso, Washington, DC, Boston, Las Vegas, Portland, Detroit, Louisville, Memphis and Baltimore. Here we profile each of them and look at the sectors in which they excel.
1. New York
Population: 8.8 million. State: New York
It would probably be easier to list the sectors and industries in which New York doesn’t excel, given the wide range of strengths it exhibits. The city, which spans over the five boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island and Brooklyn, is widely considered to be the world’s leading city when it comes to finance, based around its Wall Street district, and it is a leading location for tourism (in 2017, it received 62.8 million visitors, bringing tens of billions of dollars to the city’s economy) – but it also is a global hub for retail, transport, real estate, media, logistics, legal services, accountancy, theatre, tech, biotech, fashion, arts, sport, medical research and TV and entertainment (as well as FDI). Little wonder, then, that it is often referred to as ‘the capital of the world’. New York’s metropolitan area hosts the headquarters of more than 50 Fortune 500 companies (higher than any other global city), including American Express, Citigroup, JPMorgan, Pfizer, Thomson Reuters, Time Warner and Verizon Communications. Its metropolitan population stands at about 20 million.
2. Los Angeles
Population: 3.9 million. State: California
Los Angeles is the US’s second-largest city, and its metropolitan population – 13.2 million – ranks in second place behind New York too. It has strong claims to being the world’s high-profile city when it comes to entertainment (Los Angeles his home to Hollywood), but the city has myriad industrial strengths. It is a leading destination for aerospace, petroleum, fashion, tech, clothing, retail, telecommunications, law, healthcare and tourism, while also being a key manufacturing centre in the US and hosting some of the country’s busiest ports. It hosts five major film studios – Paramount Pictures, Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros and Universal – and the headquarters of multinational companies such as AECOM, CBRE Group and Reliance Steel and Aluminum.
Population: 2.75 million. State: Illinois
Chicago is located on the shores of Lake Michigan in the north of the Midwest. It is a major global city economy, as shown by the number of Fortune 500 companies based there, among them Archer Daniels Midland, Boeing, Caterpillar, JLL, Kraft Heinz, McDonald’s, Mondelez International, Motorola Solutions, Sears, United Airlines Holdings, US Foods and Walgreens. Its economy is also widely regarded as the most balanced in the US. On a sector level, Chicago has particular strengths in finance (it is home to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange), engineering, commerce, education, manufacturing, printing, publishing, meetings/events, logistics and food processing. It is also renowned for its cultural offering and nightlife. Chicago’s metropolitan population is 9.6 million.
Population: 2.3 million. State: Texas
Houston, in the eastern part of Texas, may lack the global profile of the likes of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, but its economic and industrial output is considerable on both a national and global scale. This largely stems from its energy industry. Indeed, of the 22 Fortune 500 companies located in Houston, 15 are in the petroleum industry, including Phillips 66, ConocoPhillips, Plains GP Holdings and Enterprise Products Partners (the largest non-petroleum company based in Houston is the versatile multinational conglomerate Sysco). Tech and software is another area in which the city thrives, with Hewlett Packard Enterprise announcing in 2020 its intention to relocate its global headquarters from California to the Greater Houston area. The city’s port is also one of the busiest in the US. Houston’s metropolitan population is 7.1 million.
Population: 1.6 million. State: Arizona
Phoenix lies in the south-west of the US, about 575km from Los Angeles. The city was built around the copper mining, agriculture, citrus fruit and cotton industries. Industries that contribute heavily to Phoenix’s economy in the 2020s include retail, real estate, manufacturing, finance, military and healthcare. Four Fortune 500 companies are based in the city; they are electronics corporation Avnet, mining company Freeport-McMoRan, retailer PetSmart and waste hauler Republic Services. Phoenix also has a burgeoning aerospace industry, with Honeywell’s aerospace division headquartered in the city. Among the other major employers in Phoenix are Best Western and Intel. Its metropolitan population is 4.85 million.
Population: 1.6 million. State: Pennsylvania
Philadelphia is located in eastern part of the US, 160km from New York. It is a city with a long and illustrious industrial record, the fruits of which are still evident to this day. Its strengths lie in fields as diverse as financial services, transport, healthcare, biotechnology, IT, manufacturing, oil refining and food processing. Its port is also one of the busiest in the US. Philadelphia hosts many major corporations such as Comcast, Aramark, Urban Outfitters, Cigna and FMC. It is also a leading city within the US with regards to education and tourism, while also having a strong reputation for both culture and cuisine (the Philly cheesesteak being a local delicacy). Philadelphia’s metropolitan population is 6.25 million.
7. San Antonio
Population: 1.4 million. State: Texas
San Antonio is the largest majority-Hispanic city in the US (some 64% of the population). It is also one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. While its economy has become known for its call centres in the 21st century, it has more traditional strengths in military, healthcare, government departments, oil and gas, tech and tourism. It hosts the headquarters of Fortune 500-ranked Valero Energy, USAA and iHeartMedia as well as the privately owned supermarket chain H-E-B. San Antonio’s metropolitan population is 2.5 million.
8. San Diego
Population: 1.4 million. State: California
San Diego sits on the Pacific coast in southern California, 27km from the Mexican border. Its metropolitan population is 3.3 million. The city has a strong reputation within the US as harbouring a nurturing environment for start-ups or small companies. While these businesses make up a considerable part of its economic output, the sectors that are most prevalent in San Diego are defence, tourism, trade, real estate, research and manufacturing. Its busy port is also integral to the city’s economy, and it is home to the headquarters of tech and communications companies such as Qualcomm and Kyocera International.
Population: 1.3 million. State: Texas
Dallas is a major city in the state of Texas, located in the north-east of the state some 55km from Fort Worth. Its metropolitan population (which includes Fort Worth) is 7.6 million, the fourth largest in the US. The city is internationally known for its oil/petroleum industry (helped by the 1980s TV series bearing the city’s name), and while the energy industry does feature strongly in its economy, it has many other strengths. These include telecommunications, engineering, tech, real estate, agriculture, art/culture, food production and healthcare. It has 11 Fortune 500 companies (with 23 present in the Dallas-Fort Worth area). These include AT&T, Energy Transfer Equity, Tenet Healthcare and Southwest Airlines.
10. San Jose
Population: 1 million. State: California
San Jose is located in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is thus a hub for the tech and software industry. Indeed, it is considered the cultural, financial and political centre of Silicon Valley, playing host to the headquarters of companies such as Adobe, Broadcom, Cisco Systems, eBay, PayPal and Zoom. San Jose is considered one of the wealthiest cities in the US. Away from the tech industry, San Jose’s historical strength in the agriculture industry can still be seen. Its metropolitan population is two million.
Population: 960,000. State: Texas
Austin in central Texas is renowned for its high-tech economic offering, helped in no small part by the graduates provided by its renowned universities. Outside of high-tech industries, Austin has strengths in pharmaceuticals, biotech and creative sectors. It is home to the headquarters of three Fortune 500 companies: Dell Technologies, Oracle and Tesla. Austin’s metropolitan population is 2.3 million.
Population: 950,000. State: Florida
Jacksonville is the largest city in the US south-east. Its location on the Atlantic Ocean and St Johns River has historically influenced its economic output, and its deepwater port is still a key location for the import of automobiles, but the city now has a highly diversified offering. Jacksonville’s strengths lie in areas such as financial services, logistics, media, technology and defence. It hosts four Fortune 500 companies: CSX Corporation, Fidelity National Financial, Fidelity National Information Services and Southeastern Grocers. Jacksonville’s metropolitan population is 1.7 million.
13. Fort Worth
Population: 920,000. State: Texas
Fort Worth’s economic fortunes seem intertwined with nearby Dallas (see above). As its name suggests, it was founded around military activities (as well as agriculture), but in the 2020s, it is better known for its universities and museums and for being one of the fastest-growing cities in the US. Its economy is based around tech, defence, energy, telecommunications and logistics. Fortune 500 company American Airlines is based in Forth Worth, while the likes of ExxonMobil, McKesson and Kimberly-Clark are based in nearby Irving. The Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington metropolitan area has a population of 7.6 million.
Population: 905,000. State: Ohio
Columbus in the US’s Midwest is the state capital of Ohio. It economy is highly diversified, with heavy representation from energy, aviation, education, government, insurance, banking, defence, food production, logistics, steel, healthcare and medical research, hospitality, retail and technology. It also turns out a consistent stream of graduates from, among other institutions, Ohio State University, which is one of the largest in the US. Columbus has a stellar reputation for research, thanks mainly to the Battelle Memorial Institute, the world’s largest private research and development foundation. The city hosts the headquarters of six Fortune 500 companies – Alliance Data, American Electric Power, Cardinal Health, Huntington Bancshares, L Brands and Nationwide Mutual Insurance – while the Wendy’s hamburger chain was founded in the city and is headquartered in its Dublin suburb. Its metropolitan population is 2.1 million.
Population: 890,000. State: Indiana
Indianapolis is another Midwest city. Its economy is based around trade, transportation, manufacturing, education, utilities, business services, healthcare, government, leisure and hospitality. It hosts three Fortune 500 companies: Anthem, Eli Lilly and Corteva. The city’s central location has helped it become a transport and logistics hub in the US, with Amazon and FedEx having major operations there. It is also renowned for its life sciences cluster. Indianapolis’s metropolitan population is 2.1 million.
Population: 875,000. State: North Carolina
Located next to the US east coast, Charlotte is a fast-growing city that is forging an impressive reputation as an emerging financial centre. It is home to the corporate headquarters of Bank of America and Truist Financial, as well as Wells Fargo’s east coast headquarters. It currently stands as the second-largest banking sector in the US. Away from finance, the city’s economy is well diversified, as shown by the fact that it has many other Fortune 500 companies within its metropolitan area. They are Honeywell (aerospace and tech), Nucor (steel), Lowe’s (retail), Duke Energy, Sonic Automotive and Brighthouse Financial (insurance). Other areas of strength include freight transportation, energy, food and food packaging, tech, chemicals, motorsport, healthcare and retail. Charlotte’s metropolitan population is 2.7 million.
17. San Francisco
Population: 875,000. State: California
San Francisco is one of the most iconic American cities due to its rich culture, numerous tourist attractions (such as the Golden Gate Bridge) and, more recently, its status as one of the key tech hubs in the world. It is the latter that has seen the city’s economy take off over the past three decades. With Silicon Valley nearby, San Francisco has had strong and lasting links with the likes of Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter. It is not just tech where San Francisco excels, however. It is a highly regarded financial centre, while its economy also relies upon business services, biotechnology, medical research, tourism, leisure, healthcare and trade. It also houses a large number of university and research facilities. Fortune 500 companies based in the city include Salesforce, Charles Schwab and Wells Fargo. Its metropolitan population is 4.75 million.
Population: 735,000. State: Washington
Seattle is located in the north-west of the US, and the city is known internationally for a variety of reasons, from being the setting of the TV sitcom Frasier, the birthplace of grunge music, and where retailer Amazon and coffee chain Starbucks were founded (and both still have headquarters there). Its economy, however, is also based around sectors such as aerospace, technology, tourism, cleantech, retail and logistics/transport. Other than Amazon and Starbucks, Fortune 500 companies based in Seattle are Expeditors International (freight), Nordstrom (retail), Weyerhaeuser (timber), Expedia Group (travel) and Zillow (real estate tech). Seattle’s metropolitan population is four million.
Population: 715,000. State: Colorado
Denver sits near the Rocky Mountains in the US’s south-west. It is the largest city within an 800km radius, and as such as acquired a reputation as a hub for the distribution and storage of goods and services. It is also a key US logistics hub. Other big sectors for the city’s economy are trade, mining, energy, healthcare, transport and beverages. Fortune 500 companies based in Denver include Arrow Electronics, DaVita Healthcare and Western Union. Its metropolitan population is three million.
20. Oklahoma City
Population: 690,000. State: Oklahoma
Located in the southern part of the US, Oklahoma City offers a thriving market for livestock, but its economy is also based around oil, gas, petroleum and other forms of energy. The city also lies within a key travel corridor, making it an important transport and logistics hub. Its economy also features significantly in IT, healthcare, administration and business services. Oklahoma City hosts two Fortune 500 companies – Chesapeake Energy and Devon Energy – and its metropolitan population is 1.43 million.
Population: 680,000. State: Tennessee
Nashville is known internationally as the home of country music, and this association brings the city a steady stream of tourists every year. Arts and culture make up a big part of its economy, but other sectors also play a strong role, particularly healthcare. Nashville is home to major companies in this sector, including Fortune 500-listed HCA Healthcare, Community Health Systems and Envision Healthcare. Other industries active in the city are food, automotives, insurance, finance and publishing. Its metropolitan population is two million.
22. El Paso
Population: 680,000. State: Texas
El Paso is located on the western edge of Texas and on the Mexican border. It stands on the Rio Grande, opposite the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez, which itself has a population of 1.5 million. Employment in the city is reliant upon the military and federal government, but there are many sectors within which it thrives, including trade, oil and gas, healthcare, call centres, agriculture and tourism. It is also a key manufacturing hub within the US. El Paso hosts one Fortune 500 company – Western Refining – and its metropolitan population is 870,000.
23. Washington, DC
Population: 670,000. Location: District of Columbia
Washington, DC needs no introduction as the capital of the US, and its economy is largely formed around government departments. Given its political importance, many linked industries and activities thrive in the city, such as law, media, professional and business services, lobbying firms, foreign embassies, trade unions, non-profit organisations and tourism. Washington is also a hub for healthcare and finance. Its universities and research institutions are also highly regarded on a global level. Washington, DC’s metropolitan population is 6.4 million, the sixth highest in the US.
Population: 675,000. State: Massachusetts
Boston, in the north-east of the US, is renowned for its picturesque architecture and many world-class educational and research institutions. Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (better known as MIT) and Tufts are based in the city, with Cambridge and Somerville just outside. As such, Boston is a global centre of excellence for technology, biotech and life sciences, and is a major centre for venture capital investment. Tourism, finance, printing/publishing and sportswear are other key elements that make up Boston’s thriving economy. The city hosts four Fortune 500 companies – General Electric, Liberty Mutual, State Street and American Tower – and its metropolitan population stands at almost five million, the tenth largest in the US.
25. Las Vegas
Population: 645,000. State: Nevada
Another city that needs no introduction is Las Vegas, the world’s best known gambling location that bills itself as ‘the Entertainment Capital of the World’. Gambling, leisure and tourism make up a large slice of the south-western city’s economy, but it also has other strengths such as air travel, retail and even the production of medical cannabis. Las Vegas’s metropolitan population is 2.27 million.
Population: 640,000. State: Oregon
Located close to the north-west coast of the US, Portland is an inland port city, and its maritime industries are crucial to its economy. The Port of Portland is the third busiest in the US for export tonnage and is a key location for cargo handling. Its sea, rail, air and road links make Portland a key logistics hub in the US, while one of its historical strengths was in the scrap steel industry, which is still present in the city to this day. It is a highly renowned tech hub (known as ‘Silicon Forest’) and is also known globally for its sportswear output. NIKE is headquartered in the city (its only Fortune 500 company), while the likes of adidas, LaCrosse, Hi-Tec Sports and Dr Martens have major operations there. Food and drink is also a thriving industry in Portland, and it has acquired a reputation for excellence when it comes to independent coffee companies and microbreweries. Its metropolitan population is 2.5 million.
Population: 630,000. State: Michigan
The Motor City of Detroit has for decades been known for two things: automotives and music. The city, which sits on the border with Canada, is no longer home to Motown Records (which is headquartered in Los Angeles) and its automotive industry has faced many challenges over the past few decades, which have become synonymous with Detroit’s apparent decline. General Motors and Stellantis (owner of Chrysler) are still based in the city, however, with Ford located in nearby Dearborn, and the industry is still a key employer there. Its economy has other strengths such as finance, technology, healthcare, trade, retail and professional and business services. Its metropolitan population is 4.36 million, the 14th largest in the US.
Population: 628,000. State: Kentucky
Louisville in northern Kentucky has a highly diverse economy that covers everything from fried chicken to the manufacture of baseball bats. Shipping and cargo, however, have historically underpinned its economy and they remain of paramount importance to the city. Air and sea freight are key strengths of Louisville, along with manufacturing, with the city’s skills used to make the aforementioned baseballs bats, along with automotives, home appliances and whiskey/bourbon. Healthcare and tech are two other growing industries in Louisville. It hosts the headquarters of three Fortune 500 companies: Humana, Kindred Healthcare and Yum! Brands. The latter operates KFC, formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken, and founder ‘Colonel’ Harland Sanders was born and raised just outside Louisville. The city’s metropolitan population is 1.4 million.
Population: 628,000. State: Tennessee
Memphis in the south-east US is known for being ‘the home’ of blues music, as well as the location of Graceland, Elvis Presley’s final home. These two factors mean that tourism is a big industry within the city, but it also has other strengths. Its central location means that freight and transportation play a key role in its economy, as do entertainment and film, paper and retail. FedEx is one of three Fortune 500 companies located in Memphis, with the other two being International Paper and AutoZone (a retailer of automotive parts). The city’s metropolitan population is 1.34 million.
Population: 576,000. State: Maryland
Baltimore is a mid-Atlantic city located close to Washington, DC, Philadelphia and New York. It was built on the heavy manufacturing industry, but in recent decades has moved closer to service industries. Its port is one of the busiest in the US and a key location for handling imports and exports. Tourism is a rising industry in Baltimore too, as are sectors based around science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The city’s metropolitan population is 2.8 million.
Please note: some US cities have large metropolitan populations, but their city rankings mean they do not feature in the top 30. They include:
Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta has a city population of about 500,000, but its metropolitan population is more than six million, and the ninth largest in the US. The Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the busiest airport in the world and plays a key role in the city’s economy. It hosts a large number of Fortune 500 companies, namely: AT&T Mobility, Chick-fil-A, Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Georgia-Pacific, Home Depot, Newell Brands, Norfolk Southern Railway and UPS. Atlanta is a key hub for IT, media and broadcasting, logistics and education.
Miami, Florida. Miami has a city population of 440,000 and a metropolitan population of 6.1 million, the eighth largest in the US. It is a major finance centre – particularly for Hispanic communities – but also thrives in the fields of commerce, culture, cargo, arts, trade, media, entertainment and tourism (it is one of the busiest cruise ports in the world). Its education offering, particularly in medicine, is also highly regarded. The metropolitan area hosts five Fortune 500 companies: construction company Lennar, retailer Office Depot, World Fuel Services, automotive retailer AutoNation and logistics company Ryder System.
Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota. The combined metropolitan area of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, known as the ‘Twin Cities’, has a population of around 3.7 million, the 16th largest in the US. The area is home to the headquarters of 21 Fortune 500 companies, including Best Buy, Ecolab, General Mills, Polaris, Target, 3M, United Health Group and US Bancorp. This diverse group of companies reflects the many strengths the region has in finance, retail, tech, agribusiness, logistics and healthcare.
Tampa, Florida. Tampa’s metropolitan population of 2.4 million, the 17th largest in the US, dwarfs its city population of 385,000. Its economy is built around finance, retail, healthcare, insurance, freight, defence, tourism and real estate. It is home to many large financial companies such as Suncoast Credit Union.
Orlando, Florida. Orlando has a city population of just over 300,000, but its metropolitan population is 2.4 million, the 23rd largest in the US. Tourism is key to Orlando’s economy, with it hosting Disney World and Universal Orlando. It is also a major city for conferences and conventions, and has a thriving technology industry. Other areas important to Orlando’s economy are defence, healthcare, digital media, agribusiness, aviation and aerospace.
Cincinnati, Ohio. The city of Cincinnati is located in south-west Ohio and has a population of just over 300,000. Its metropolitan population, however, is 2.2 million, the 30th largest in the US. Cincinnati has a strong reputation for start-ups, while also housing the headquarters of Fortune 500 companies such as Procter & Gamble, retail company Kroger and Fifth Third Bank.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh has one of the richest industrial histories of any US city, and while its urban population is just over 300,000, its metropolitan population is 2.4 million, the 27th largest in the US. The city was built around the steel industry, which made the fortunes of people such as Andrew Carnegie and JP Morgan. Both did much to shape the city in the 20th century, and its strong reputation for education can be seen through the buildings constructed by Carnegie in particular. In the 21st century, Pittsburgh has many industrial strengths in areas such as technology, robotics, healthcare, engineering, tourism, biotech, finance and services. It hosts the headquarters of ten Fortune 500 companies: Alcoa (aluminium), Arconic (metals engineering), Dick’s Sporting Goods, the Kraft-Heinz Company (food), PNC Financial Services, PPG Industries (paints), Viatris (healthcare), Wabtec (rail manufacturing), WESCO International (electrics) and US Steel.
St Louis, Missouri. St Louis’s city population stands at just over 300,000, but its metropolitan population is 2.8 million, the 20th largest in the US. Its economy is mostly reliant upon service, manufacturing, biotech, trade, transportation and tourism, and it is home to Fortune 500 companies including Centene, Edward Jones Investments, Emerson Electric, Express Scripts, Graybar Electric, Monsanto and Reinsurance Group of America.
All figures are based on United States Census Bureau statistics for 2020/estimates for 2021.