The United States is full of interesting destinations, but some cities just seem to hog all the buzz. Big-name draws such as New York, Washington, New Orleans, and San Francisco have world-class sights — and massive numbers of tourists to go with them, but we’ve looked around to find 20 cities large and small where travelers can still happily fill a weekend or more without battling the crowds. One of the best? Texas’ San Antonio.
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS
Fast-growing San Antonio has long labored in the shadow of its hip neighbor, Austin, but is well worth the detour even when skipping the famous Alamo. Try the shops and restaurants in the Pearl District, formerly a massive brewery complex, which can be reached via the newly expanded city River Walk. Tired feet? Hop a river taxi.
Read on to discover some other spots tourists tend to overlook — and should not.
About halfway between Charleston and Savannah, Beaufort offers a lot of the antebellum charm visitors seek, without quite as many crowds. Fodor’s praises the town’s thriving arts scene and picturesque historic district, where moss-draped trees abound. Movie buffs can find sites from films including Forrest Gump, The Prince of Tides, and more.
If hipster haven Portland isn’t quite your scene, Salem and the Willamette Valley are ready and waiting — especially for wine lovers. There are more than 700 wineries sprinkled throughout the region, which is especially known for its pinot noirs. (Salem also has a thriving craft-brew scene.) Plenty of hiking and waterfalls await just outside the city.
This gem on Lake Superior in northern Minnesota has tons to offer the active traveler: hiking, mountain biking, and, soon, even ice climbing at a downtown park. Hop on the North Shore Scenic Drive to take in the wilderness and rugged coastline north of town, or head up to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area for a true taste of solitude — though you may spot a moose or two.
Immediately bypassing Knoxville for garish, tourist-packed Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg is a mistake. This laid-back college town has been branded “Austin without the hype,” and visitors will find a surprisingly robust music scene. Downtown, be sure to explore Market Square and nearby Old City for the best selection of bars and restaurants. And check out the 1,000-acre Urban Wilderness, which has plenty of hiking and mountain biking trails, before heading south to the Smokies.
The secret might be out about Columbus by now: National Geographic says it’s next in line for a hipster influx after Brooklyn, Portland, and Austin; it was also one of Money’s “Best Big Cities” in 2016. Two can’t-miss neighborhoods include the thriving Short North arts district and charming, historic German Village. Just outside the city there’s the massive Columbus Zoo and Aquarium — considered one of the nation’s best zoos.
PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND
Visitors to the Northeast typically go straight to Boston for its historic sights, but Providence has enough going for it that Travel & Leisure readers even named it “America’s Favorite City.” Ample food, shopping, and local brews are all packed into a charming, walkable downtown. Other highlights include WaterFire, a bonfire show that lights up the city’s rivers.
GREENVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA
Under-the-radar Greenville has become a foodie haven in the past several years, trading in chain restaurants for local fare. In fact, you’ll find 120 locally owned restaurants in a 10-block area downtown, according to Southern Living. Hop on one of the downtown trolleys when you’re too stuffed to move, or walk off the calories at Falls Park on the Reedy, a downtown oasis filled with trails, flower, public art, waterfalls and more.
TWIN FALLS, IDAHO
There’s no need to head to tourist-packed Niagara to see an impressive waterfall. Twin Falls’ Shoshone Falls are even taller, and travel costs are lower. Venture along the Snake River Canyon Rim Trail for spectacular views — you may even see BASE jumpers plummeting from Perrine Bridge — or grab a kayak and paddle the river below.
It’s hard to stand out with competition such as Miami, Orlando, and Tampa, but beach lovers say Pensacola is worthwhile precisely because it demands relaxation. This is where you come for “Southern drawls, a gentle pace, fresh seafood, and more grits and old-fashioned hospitality,” Fodors raves. When tired of white sand beaches, check out Pensacola’s Palafox Historic District, a mix of shops, art galleries, and restaurants in a number of architectural influences.
Tourists making a beeline for the Grand Canyon often overlook Flagstaff, but this small city is worth the stop. One of Travel & Leisure’s “Best College Towns,” Flagstaff and its Historic Railroad District are well worth a wander. Nearby Walnut Canyon National Monument offers a less-traveled alternative to Mesa Verde for travelers hoping to see ancient cliff dwellings. Stargazers should stop in at Lowell Observatory, home of the $53 million Discovery Channel Telescope.
RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA
Rapid City, perched on the edge of the Black Hills National Forest, is a natural hub for visiting some of South Dakota’s most popular attractions. Badlands and Wind Cave national parks are only an hour away; Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial are even closer. In Rapid City itself, visit the bronze sculptures of U.S. presidents along Main and St. Joseph streets, then visiting Firehouse Brewing for a local beer.
Louisville is a lot more than horses these days. Fodor’s praises the “unexpectedly hip scene” in a number of neighborhoods including NuLu, or New Louisville, which boasts eclectic shops and farm-to-table restaurants. You don’t even have to head to the countryside distilleries to sample the region’s best bourbon anymore: Grab a nightcap on the city’s Urban Bourbon Trail, where dozens of bars have anywhere from 50 to 170 varieties at the ready.
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI
Proclaimed the “most overlooked city to visit right now,” by Thrillist, spread-out St. Louis remains a city of dense, attractive neighborhoods and world-class attractions including the St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis Art Museum, and Missouri Botanical Garden. Downtown is also undergoing a revival, with new developments such as Laclede’s Landing, which features riverfront dining and shopping near the iconic Gateway Arch.
In a state packed with tourist meccas such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, Sacramento will never get top billing, but there’s still plenty to see. The Old Sacramento Historic District is a charming, kitschy window into the city’s Gold Rush past, and the California State Railroad Museum is a train buff’s delight.
EUREKA SPRINGS, ARKANSAS
Victorian architecture in Arkansas? You’ll find it in Eureka Springs, which has a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places that can be explored on a trolley or even by horse-drawn carriage. Other can’t-miss sights: The stunning glass Thorncrown Chapel, exotic-cat haven Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, and Ozarks scenery all around.
A firmly blue-collar past has given Baltimore a bad rap, but now it’s “the coolest city on the East Coast,” according to Travel & Leisure. While the Inner Harbor boasts top-shelf attractions including the National Aquarium and Maryland Science Center, try exploring character-filled neighborhoods including hip Hampden and historic Federal Hill.
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, COLORADO
Overshadowed by the likes of Denver, Boulder, and Aspen, Glenwood Springs has its own brand of adventure to offer visitors. Boulder Weekly calls it a “true multi-sport mecca” that is more family-friendly than other Colorado hotspots with its beginner-friendly skiing, whitewater rafting, hiking, fishing, and more. Once you’re too tired to move, go soak in the mineral water at Glenwood Hot Springs Pool.
Maine is better known for its rugged coastal beauty, but there’s plenty to recommend a stopover in its biggest town. Portland is becoming a bit of a foodie hotspot, Fodors notes, with a restaurant and bar scene befitting a much larger city. Explore the views, parks, and Victorian architecture along the Eastern Promenade or grab a microbrew at an Old Port pub before heading up the coast for some lighthouse-spotting.
LEWISBURG, WEST VIRGINIA
The shops and restaurants in charming Lewisburg will banish any persistent West Virginia stereotypes. Catch a show at historic Carnegie Hall, but be sure to leave enough time for big-time attractions nearby. In the Lost World Caverns, you can take a four-hour underground adventure tour. Down the road at the luxurious Greenbrier Resort, explore a formerly classified Cold War-era bunker meant to house the U.S. government in the event of nuclear war.
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